I had a dream in which I took a glittering white and orange koi fish from a pond. It allowed the parting from its translucent home without complaint yet watched me, unblinking. After waking I was immediately curious on how the different colors are carried across generations of koi – and what extent human aesthetic breeding played a part. Reverence for this fish began in China and Japan so let’s start at the beginning.
Legend has it that in 533 B.C. Confucius’s son was gifted a common black carp (magoy) on the day of his birth by King Shoko of Ro. Upon this honor Confucius named his son after the only fish that managed to swim up the falls of the Yellow River and become a dragon. I have not been able to find too more in depth about this yet but enjoy the link above to the legend of the koi fish.
Koi were brought to Japan when the Chinese invaded, where it was bred in the gardens of the main house for food, especially during winter when the rice could not be grown. It was not until after WWII, when air travel brought a surplus of foreigners who admired the auspicious fish and coveted it as a symbol of wealth, that selectively breeding the koi fish became prominent. They were bread not only for their traditional symbolism of positive energy but also for beauty. There are dozens of colorations for koi fish and interpretations vary across many who appreciate the species. These are the most popular and most common: red coloration is for the mother, for fire, strength and power; black coloration is for masculinity, the patriarchal role; blue and white coloration is for the son and tranquility; and gold koi symbolized prosperity and wellbeing (especially in business). It makes more sense now why in movies I saw these in ponds of the eastern Asian upper class. Of course you have the implication of financial superiority but I so love this delve into the layers behind the selection. It could have been deer or a beetle but someone somewhere decided the koi was gorgeous and convinced others who carried it over generations – all the way to us, here, now.
Bear in mind that subjective selection is not necessarily evolutionary healthy. Some animals appear to breed for beauty (butterflies, horses, peacocks, wild cats, etc.) but what we admire as beautiful is always subjective. Indications of ‘beauty,’ such as a thick mane on a horse or the vibrant colors on butterflies and peacocks, are indications of healthy genes and a those that can fend for themselves (and therefore others as a mate or to produce strong offspring).
How we look doesn’t always belay what is under our surface, however.
The most prominent example I can give you is albino animals. They are popularly considered exotic – an association socially used to connote beauty but nominally inaccurate, by the way. Albinism comes with high (and sometimes fatal) ocular problems and drastically increases the susceptibility to sunburns and skin cancers. Why? Well, what’s the prominent feature of albinism? White pigment – or lack of pigment. Albinism results from inbreeding where the offspring has the highest chance of receiving both alleles that do not produce melanin in the corresponding chromosome dedicated to coding the body to generate color in the skin and eyes.
Now, in modern science we have of course realized this and even zoos will trade residents in an attempt to increase the diversification of a species genes. This is especially crucial for those that cannot be widely released back into the wild to live out their own natural selection. Artificial selection can only go so far, though, and the records the zoos keep do not yet have the length of time and research put into, say, the Arabian Stud Book the Sultans of old kept close at hand. It makes me wonder what mutations may now be absent – and what is yet to come.
Fun Fact: The koi manifestations of the ocean and moon spirit in Avatar: The Last Airbender have colorings based on a Tancho koi coloring which originated from the Kohaku, meaning “red and white” (see linked breeding tree above).
All this pondering and research for a dream about a koi fish, what am I thinking, right? I feed my curiosity and encourage you to humor yours, after all it must exist in sentient organisms for a reason. Now come on, move those fingers and look up the things I know you have more questions about!
Sources; for more information:
- Assaf, Zoe. Understanding Genetics: Conditions. The Tech Museum of Innovations. <http://genetics.thetech.org/ask-a-geneticist/genetics-inbreeding>
- Living Jewels – the world of koi. Rugenberg Herald. Northwest newspapers. <http://www.northwestnewspapers.co.za/herald/home/series/koi-fish/439-living-jewels-the-world-of-koi>
- Koi, Kenneth. Koi Fish Meaning And Myth. Koi Story: Tales of Raising Koi Fish. <http://koistory.com/blog/koi-fish-meaning-and-myth>
- What do Koi Fish Symbolize?.Feng-shui. Love to Know. <http://feng-shui.lovetoknow.com/What_Do_Koi_Fish_Symbolize>
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