Magoo inspecting us
Magoo inspecting the camera.

One of the first fish we ever bought was "Magoo," a little black moor goldfish with big eyes, and loads of personality. We didn’t realize it when we got him, but Magoo was an innovator. Like the famous potato-washing Japanese macaque monkeys, Magoo would invent new behaviors, and teach them to others in the tank.

One characteristic of goldfish as a species is their non-linear thinking. If you ever watch a goldfish try to attain an objective, for instance swimming across the tank to get some food, it may sometimes appear as if the goldfish will forget the goal, then remember, then forget, then remember again, all the way to the other side. They are much more interested in the journey than the goal. In this, Goldfish are the opposite of cichlids, who singlemindedly focus on their agendas better than most people. However this non-linear mental state should not be mistaken for stupidity. Several of our goldfish have been remarkably intelligent. However our orange fantail, Piggum, is not one of them!

Piggum and Magoo eating a yellow squash
Magoo eating a yellow squash. Piggum is sitting next to him for comfort.

When we first got Piggum, he swam back and forth across the tank for a whole day without stopping. We realized he had probably never been alone before, and was looking for other fish. So we went out and bought Magoo right away. When we dropped Magoo into the tank, Piggum didn’t know what to do! He immediately stopped swimming back and forth, dropped to the bottom, and stayed there with his chin on the gravel for a long time. Magoo was unconcerned: he just started searching the gravel for food. Within a day or so, Piggum and Magoo became best friends. They would sleep side by side, and Piggum would do whatever Magoo was doing. Piggum is definitely not a self-starter.



Magoo watching us.

Until Magoo arrived, Piggum had been accustomed to eat from the surface. We fed them flakes, and he would zip around the top of the tank, snatching flakes off the surface. He would ignore any that fell to the ground. When Magoo arrived, he brought new ideas, however. He would eat a little off the surface, but his flake-targeting ability wasn’t so great, probably because of the big eyes. He preferred to spend a lot of time systematically turning over every gravel piece in the tank. He was truly tireless at cleaning the gravel. After a few weeks, Piggum started searching the gravel also. He was never as diligent and systematic as Magoo, but he would consistently hunt in the gravel once he learned the new technique.

Magoo also taught Piggum and all the other goldfish we eventually purchased to use gravel to chew with – sort of the way a chicken uses gravel in their gizzard. None of the goldfish used gravel in that manner until spending some time with Magoo. Magoo’s procedure for eating was:

Get a mouthful of flakes.
Pick up some gravel.
Swim to the top of the tank and get a bubble of air.
Chew thoroughly with your pebble teeth.
Repeat!

One of Magoo’s most endearing characteristics was his interest in the outside world. He spent a lot of time looking out of the tank. If we came up to look, he would tilt his head to the right, and start "yapping" furiously. Despite the lack of noise, it seemed clear that Magoo was trying to communicate with us. He would do this even when he wasn’t hungry – food wasn’t his biggest motivator.

Magoo in mid-click
Magoo in mid-click

Then one day, Magoo made a big conceptual leap. He figured out a way to make noise! He realized that clicking a glass thermometer against the tank wall would get us to come see what was going on. After that, Magoo was in business. He would click anytime he wanted attention. If we called his name, he would "Click!" If we dared to walk by the tank without saying "Hi," Magoo would click at us. If we left the room, he would make a loud "Click!" At night when we shut off the last light to go to sleep, we would hear "CLICK!" One night I decided to test his hearing. I went upstairs after shutting off the living room light, and called "Magoo!" "CLICK!"

Every morning, at dawn, Magoo would announce the fact that he was awake with "Click, click!"

Magoo would hang out by the clicker, looking out at us, ready to make a statement. If he did get our attention, he would start "talking" – moving his mouth as if he was giving a speech at the microphone.


Here is Magoo, waiting for a good reason to click the "Magoozaphone."

After about 4 years, Magoo suddenly changed color from nearly all black to half gold and half black. The advantage of this was that you can now see his face clearly! He looked like a wise little old man. He also grew a tiny bit of “oranda” cap, and his face had a lot of character.

This is one trick he didn’t teach anyone else: none of the other fish ever expressed any serious interest in the clicker, except Piggum would go out of his way to whack it with his tail sometimes as he went by.


Click the image to see a movie of Magoo “talking”