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 “To talk much and arrive nowhere is the same as climbing a tree to catch a fish”

– Chinese Proverb

Everybody has a life, everybody has a story. When I meet someone who interests me I want to know everything about them – all the things that shaped and molded that person into who he or she is today. I love it when people tell me their stories. . .

Well. . . fish have stories, too. Endlessly varied and fascinating stories. Every fish that ever was started somewhere and has a family, just like your pal John or Sally. A fish’s story tends to be less drama-filled than Sally’s might be – no broken hearts or stormy trysts, no loves-at-first sight or family feuds or parental abuse. . .a fish’s story is broader than that, and more generalized – but just as fascinating. Did I happen to mention that I love stories!?

Fish stories are cool. They start with a single name then branch off in so many different directions. It’s like those Choose Your Own Adventure books I had as a kid – you can get completely lost in whichever chapter you choose to take, but always have to go back to the main page to follow the story through from another angle. . . It’s a kind of puzzle, in which all the pieces came together to create the animal that’s swimming in your tank.

The first and biggest part of the story is its natural story. If you can learn the natural story of a fish – not just the what and the where and the how – but the WHY – then you can better understand what this strangely graceful and unique creature is. Fish can be wildly different from one-another, each species is uniquely suited to the environment in which it has grown to became part of. They share similar, and often very obvious, characteristics – but each type has its own subjective version of what the world is, based on the specific conditions under which it originated.

Your fish came from somewhere; a river, a lake, or a rushing mountain stream – the types of water are just as varied as the fish themselves – and the details of these environments play a dominant role in why your fish has become what it is. There is nothing personal to be found here, a fish’s story goes back to the dawn of time, and is the end-result of millions of years of gradually changing and evolving – a fish is unique in that it is so much a part of its natural environment that you must understand one to know the other. Was the river bed stony, or sandy? Were there many plants in the water – or trees to shade the sun? Was the current fast or nonexistent? What food? What predators? Where did the water come from and what was it like? Each of these elements (and so many more) have their own stories that are very much entwined with that of your fish, and have had a very direct effect on everything from the overall shape of the fish, including its fins and mouth, to what it eats, how it breeds, and where it sleeps. Aside from being purely fascinating, learning about their natural habitats  will bring you directly to a deeper level of understanding of the creatures themselves, and gives insight into what your fish expects from its world within the parameters of its limited understanding.

 For some species, this universe is quite large and varied, these fish can be found everywhere and thrive pretty much anywhere they can find a decent meal and a mate. It is fairly easy to keep these critters alive on your home shelf because they’re used to changes. They’ve evolved to be tough and adaptable and are kind of okay with  whatever comes their way. For others, the world where they evolved was very small, with minimal change to a very specific area over time. For obvious reasons, these fish are generally those most difficult to keep in a home aquarium, and much effort will have to go into recreating their world just as they expect it to be if they are to thrive.

But the story of a fish doesn’t actually stop there, because unless you’re out in the muck thigh-deep with a net of your own, the animal you are bringing home with you probably didn’t actually come from that world. Rather, it came from a little tank in a local pet shop with many others just like it. After so many generations of selective breeding, the fish you purchase and bring home often looks very different from its wild cousins – so much sometimes that you might have trouble recognizing it if not for the handy little information card conveniently placed on the front of the shop’s tank. I have no idea what has happened to the fish I find here from the time that its forebears were taken from the natural world.

Humankind has been keeping fish – for food as well as ornamental reasons – pretty much since we were smart enough to figure out how make bowls to put them into (I wonder what the Ancient Egyptians knew about the nitrogen cycle, stocking levels, and a balanced aquarium? Heh. Likely far more than Philip Gosse)! If I’m remembering correctly, Goldfish breeding goes back at least to 900 AD, though the type of goldfish breeding that we see today really started to get going in the mid-1800’s. . . and it wasn’t until 65-70ish years ago that we were really able to get into deeper waters, have a look around, and snag us some pretty new kinds of fish to keep in our houses. Looking through hand-me-down books dated only 25 years past really brings home how much has changed since then. New species are being found, studied, and kept as pets all the time, and so much information has become ‘common knowledge’ (if you bother to look for it) even since the 80’s. There is no way to trace your fish’s lineage back to the open waters that originally defined their ideal conditions. For some species it will be longer than others, perhaps fish of the same species in the same tank at the shop can have ‘fresher’ roots than their tank-mates – a good breeder will always turn back to wild stock at some point (hopefully), and there are some species that are wild caught and sold straight from the pond. I wonder what effect humankind has had on the story of my fish?

Why does it matter? Well. . . it probably doesn’t. But I’m curious, and I love a good mystery (except when I can’t solve it!). There are some species of fish, ancient fish, who have changed very little in millions of years. And there are some, like guppies, whose appearance is so malleable it’s been superficially altered in a countless array of fin shapes and dazzling colors. Then I look at some others, like GloFish®, who have been injected with genes of jellyfish and sea-coral to make them an unnatural neon color which breeds true (Really? A patent? On a FISH? What is this world coming to?!!) When trying to find the story behind a fish kept in an aquarium, I wonder exactly how different my little ornamental fish are from their ancestors. Have you ever read of Dmitri Belyaev and his silver foxes? Basically, foxes who showed curiosity toward humans, rather than aggression, were selectively bred to others with the same traits. After several generations had passed, their appearance (body shape and coloration) and demeanor began to change and more closely resemble those of a common dog. These ‘new’ foxes are quite different in every way then their wild cousins

Not only do they look different in body shape and coloration, the ‘natural’ genetic manipulation has had a drastic effect on their demeanor, including the way they interact with each-other and breed. Essentially, these are a different species from what they were at start. Their genes are different now. . . I’d love to see a similar experiment done on common aquarium fish (I’m sure this information must be out there somewhere!) In this case, fish are bred for color or fin shape – as opposed to personality, but the foxes changed color and shape,  if one has such a drastic effect on the other. . . human meddling has to have had some effect on aquarium fish above the obvious differences in appearance.

Granted, comparing a fish to a fox is absurd to start with, but still I wonder how far some of them have come over the years. Fish are EVERYWHERE. These critters were built to adapt to whatever is tossed their way (this is really astoundingly obvious when reading about the various members of the Cichlid family). It might take time and generations for changes to occur, but considering the lifespan of some fish. . . it can’t take a terribly long time, or there wouldn’t be any fish left in any but the remotest places on Earth! I’m not for a moment doubting that recreating the natural environment that the species enjoy in the wild is the absolute best way to keep it’s captive-bred cousin. Rather, I’m wondering how long this will remain the case, and what type (if any) of permanent changes have some types aquarium fish already undergone genetically. Will there be a point in the future when certain fish are so far removed in all ways from their natural counterparts that they are classified separately, and will only thrive and feel comfortable when confined inside walls of glass?

If you put a few hearty aquarium fish into a local body of water,  provided temperatures were warm enough, they will likely survive and possibly thrive to the point of taking over the pond. It’s happened on countless occasions. . .I wonder if a same-species locally caught wild fish would fare as well if plopped into even the best-kept tank? I’m somehow doubtful.

Then there is the final chapter, which is  specific to only your fish alone, and often impossible to learn all of unless it was born in your tank. That is when was this particular fish born, in what conditions it was kept, where was it bred, and how many stops did it make before it got to the pet-shop where it was purchased. Nobody really mentions this bit anywhere that I’ve seen, so maybe it doesn’t really matter. . . but it seems like it should! A fish kept from birth in a tank with the barest necessities will certainly feel more at home in a considerate owner’s tank! What impact does the personal history of a single fish have on its overall happiness? Where does the instinct of a species leave off and personal experience take over? To figure that out you would have to get into how much a fish really knows or remembers or is affected in any way, even instinctively, by the lot it’s been dealt in life. Fish have unique personalities, at least some of them do. A lot of this is likely due to inborn characteristics – the more aggressive fish will get the most food, thus grow largest and become more dominant and likely to pass on its genes (basic, but you get the point) – but is any of this influenced at all by conditions in the tank? It took my Mollies less than 3 days to go to the top right corner of the tank for their flake food when they saw me at the tank at feeding time. Likely these fish have been taught from birth that people bring them food from the sky. . . but it took them less than a week to start ignoring the flake food and going to the top LEFT side of the tank immediately after it was dropped in to get the tastier shrimp and worms that I had been sneaking in for the frog. If these fish were moved to another tank in another home – wouldn’t they expect worms from the left side of the tank for a little while before figuring out the new routine? It holds that at least some of the behavior of any fish is learned, as opposed to purely instinctive, and I’d really love to know how it affects the bigger picture. . .