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9 Colorful Facts About Goldfish

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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.

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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.

 

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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Art
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b
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Here's the First-Ever Video of Sand Cat Kittens Playing in the Wild

Sand cats are as elusive as they are adorable. Native to the isolated deserts of Asia and Africa, the nocturnal felines are adapted to desert life, and can go for long periods without water. They’re stealthy predators of venomous snakes and small rodents, and escape detection thanks to their pale sandy coats and furry paws, the latter of which make their tracks nearly invisible. These reasons, among others, are why sand kittens have never been captured on video—until now.

As The Independent reports, researchers from Panthera France, a wild cat conservation group, recently found and filmed three sand cat kittens in Morocco. Thought to be around two months old, they were hiding among vegetation as they waited for their mother to return.

Led by biologists Alexander Sliwa and Grégory Breton, the managing director of Panthera France, the researchers first embarked on their quest to locate and study the wild cat in 2013. Over the course of multiple expeditions, they encountered adults, but no offspring.

In April 2017, during their fifth expedition, Sliwa and Breton were heading back to camp at night when they spotted three pairs of gleaming eyes in the darkness. "They belonged to young sand cats, yellowish, small wild cats with broader faces and larger ears than domestic cats," Breton recounted on Panthera France's blog. Astonished, the scientists managed to record the kittens and identify and radio-collar their mother.

Experts think this is the first time that sand cat (Felis margarita) kittens have been documented in their African range. Until Sliwa and Breton locate even more baby cats for us to ogle, you can enjoy their video footage below.

[h/t The Independent]

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