CLOSE
iStock
iStock

9 Colorful Facts About Goldfish

iStock
iStock

It may not be the cutest, cuddliest, or the most exotic animal to have in your home, but there’s something about the goldfish that appeals to pet owners around the world. These descendants of the Prussian carp were first domesticated in China 2000 years ago. Mutations produced fish with brilliantly colored scales, and after years of breeding, the pet store staple we know today was born. Here are some facts about the iconic pet worth knowing.

1. THE CLASSIC GOLDFISH WAS ALMOST YELLOW.

Robbie Veldwijk via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Goldfish come in many shades, but it’s the orange variety that's most closely associated with the species. This may not have been the case if it wasn’t for a rule enforced during the Song Dynasty. By 1162 CE, goldfish ponds were en vogue, and the empress at the time had her own built and filled with the colorful creatures. She also forbade all non-royals from keeping fish that were yellow, the color of the royal family.

2. THE GOVERNMENT HELPED MAKE THEM POPULAR IN AMERICA.

Goldfish became the go-to fish for American pet owners in the late 19th century, and that’s partly thanks to Washington. According to The Atlantic, the U.S. Commission on Fisheries received an import of Japanese goldfish in 1878 and decided to give them away as a publicity stunt. D.C. residents could submit requests for glass bowls of goldfish, and at the program’s peak, 20,000 pets were handed out a year. The campaign lasted through the 19th century, and at one point, a third of all households in the city owned a government-provided goldfish.

3. THEY’VE OCCUPIED THE WHITE HOUSE.

One notable D.C. resident to hop aboard the goldfish craze of the late 1800s was President Grover Cleveland. Among the hundreds of fish he had imported to Washington were Japanese goldfish. And he’s not the only president to keep a pet goldfish. After Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, a 10-year-old from New York sent him a goldfish named Ronald Reagan the Second with the note, “I hope you get better and to help you get better, here is a companion ... Just feed him daily and he’ll be fine.” (White House staffers put the goldfish in a former jelly bean bowl.) President Nixon’s dog Vicky became famous for chasing the goldfish in a White House pond.

 

4. THERE ARE OVER 100 VARIETIES.

Lerdsuwa via Wikimedia Commons // GFDL, CC-BY-SA

It may be the most recognizable one, but the common goldfish isn’t the only member of the species worth noting. Goldfish come in dozens of breeds that vary in color, shape, and size. Some varieties are known for the lumpy growths on their heads, while others are prized for their mottled scales. A few spectacular varieties include lionheads, pompoms, veiltails, bubble-eyes, and shubunkins.

5. YOU CAN TEACH THEM TRICKS.

Having trouble teaching your dog to fetch? Maybe you’ll have better luck with a goldfish. The species can be trained to perform tasks like recognizing colors, retrieving items, and swimming through mazes. The R2 Fish School offers a whole training kit, complete with a miniature sports field designed to transform your fish into a star athlete. One of their graduates currently holds the world record for knowing the most tricks of any fish.

6. THEY HAVE AN EAR FOR MUSIC.

Partly because they’re easily trained, goldfish make for popular test study subjects. In one such study conducted by Keio University, goldfish were taught to distinguish between the music of two classical composers. One group was trained to nibble on a ball of food when they heard pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. A second group was taught to do the same but with Igor Stravinsky. When scientists swapped the composers the fish no longer showed interest in eating, suggesting they could tell the difference between the two styles.

7. GIANT GOLDFISH ARE A HUGE PROBLEM.

Murdoch University

Your goldfish may look cute and tiny in the tank, but in the wild, they can grow to monstrous proportions. Specimens living in Australia’s Vasse River have the fastest growth rate of any goldfish species, reaching up to four pounds. Their growth spurts might be impressive if they weren’t so disastrous for the environment: Goldfish are an invasive species and they’re sometimes responsible for harming local animal populations and spreading disease. So if you have a sick fish at home, make sure it’s really dead before you flush it. Or better yet, bury it in your garden (it’s more dignified anyway).

8. THE OLDEST GOLDFISH LIVED TO BE 43.

Buying a goldfish isn’t supposed to be a lifelong commitment. You may hope for it to last a few years at the most, but with proper care and good genes, a goldfish can live to be much older. The world’s oldest goldfish, a carnival prize named Tish, died in 1999 at the age of 43. According to his owner, the secret to his longevity was occasional sunlight and being fed in moderation.

9. FISHBOWLS ARE BANNED IN PARTS OF ITALY.

iStock

It’s hard to think of goldfish without picturing the classic, glass fishbowl, but animal welfare groups say we should rethink the vessel as a pet habitat. According to the Humane Society, first-time fish owners should buy a tank of 20 gallons or more to give their aquatic companion suitable swimming space. In 2004, the northern Italian city of Monza banned pet owners from keeping fish in round bowls and Rome passed a similar law a year later.

 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
iStock
iStock

People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios