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Saturday, May 24, 2008

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Invitation to a spawn party


In any well-known Japanese garden in Japan, you are bound to come across a pond full of carp, large decorative fish that look like they had orange paint spilled on them. Koi, as they are called, also come in black and white, in which they look more like Holstein fish.

Besides being a decorative fish, the koi also symbolizes strength, which is why on Children's Day in Japan people hang up carp kites for boys. Perhaps it's a kind of visual gym workout for the boys: They look up at the carp kites and gain strength. But what has always amazed me about fish pond koi is how expensive they are. These fish start at ¥10,000 each. That's a lot of money for a fish you can't even eat.

So I was quite surprised when, in Kotohira, Shikoku, I saw loads of koi swimming in public! As a beautification project, the town had installed a shallow waterway next to the sidewalk and filled it with koi. You could just reach down and scoop out the fish if you wanted. This would surely be classified as a felonious fish crime, however, so I don't recommend it.

One thing that makes the koi expensive is that, although the fish lay hundreds of eggs at one time, most of the fry that result will not have good enough markings to sell. Now you know where the term "fish fry" comes from. The others will grow up to become carpenters. Hey, who do you think constructs all those reefs? And the continental shelf? Migrant carp from the rivers do. Anyone who knows anatomy and "fishiology" already knows this.

The female carp, however, stays at home and has lavish spawning parties. Female carp can be sexually mature at 1 year of age. Can you imagine a birthday party for a 1-year-old?

Goldie: Thank you all for coming to my birthday party. After we eat cake, I have a surprise for you. I'm going to spawn!

Oooooh! say the fish, wide-eyed, jaws agape. Some swim home to get their under-water video cameras.

The attending males start drooling, which is why there's all that water in the pond in the first place. Yes, it is a lot of drooling, but when Goldie spawns hundreds of thousands of yellow eggs all at once, it must be something like a fireworks display. And that's a lot to drool about if you are a male carp.

The only problem is that carrying hundreds of thousands of eggs is rather hard to hide since they don't make maternity clothes for fish. So the female is dogged by this group of males hoping to be the lucky guy to fertilize her eggs.

Sexual harassment if you ask me.

And, you know what a pregnant female carp is called? Gravid. How unattractive! I mean, is that even politically correct? Perhaps the females are called gravid because at that time, males "gravidate" to her.

In spawning, a type of baby shower, the male hovers over the eggs and releases his sperm to fertilize the eggs The sperm have a mere 30 seconds to do their job before they are rendered too weak and therefore useless.

As this happens, all the other fish sing "Happy Birthday."

But the singing fish may begin to wonder who they are singing "Happy Birthday" to, the fish being born now or their 1-year-old mother. Of course, the eggs haven't hatched yet, so it's not really a birthday party for them, is it? It's more of a coming-out party.

In just three days, when these hundreds of thousands of eggs hatch, that will be one heck of a big family. And all of the children the same age! With carp having a life span of up to 15 years, Goldie is in for a lot of grandchildren as well.

At the end of Goldie's birthday party, she whips out her cell phone (waterproof, of course) and calls her hundreds of thousands of sisters — "Happy Birthday!" she says. "How did your spawning go?"

So the next time you look into a Japanese garden fish pond, you'll know what those koi are doing.



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