Are Goldfish Social Fish? (Explained)

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Crucian carp in hand
Goldfish come from crucian carp (pictured) and have gone through lots of artificial selection over hundreds of years, leading to the many goldfish varieties that can be seen today. Sami Mason ~TheWildFamily.UK / CC BY 4.0

The goldfish, Carassius auratus, is a popular aquatic pet. Although many goldfish are kept in groups in ponds, some are also kept solitarily in tanks, which raises the question of whether this species requires social contact to maximize its welfare and enable it to thrive.

Goldfish originate from crucian carp, Carassius carassius, and were domesticated in ancient China around a thousand years ago. Since then, this fish has undergone a huge amount of artificial selection which has resulted in a great variety of morphological features, such as differences in the shape of the body, eye, tail fin, and dorsal fin.

Crucian carp are reported to shoal, forming large groups and synchronizing their swimming speed to remain together. However, this species has not been found to engage in social learning, suggesting that this, among other social behaviors, is something that developed in goldfish since their domestication.

The Social Life of Goldfish

Group of goldfish in tank
Research has shown that goldfish tend to move toward other goldfish that are swimming; it is thought that this may be because they receive tactile and visual cues from the movement. Watts / CC BY 2.0

Goldfish are highly motivated to shoal and will copy their conspecifics in searching for food and avoiding predators. Social learning is important to goldfish – one study found that individuals could learn to navigate a maze more quickly when they had watched another fish complete it.

Because we are such visual animals, it is easy to forget that other creatures communicate using a variety of sensory stimuli. As well as using visual cues for shoaling and reproduction, individuals can also identify each other using olfactory cues such as pheromones, which proves useful when water clarity is poor.

Although goldfish are a non-vocal species, research has found that they can detect some sounds, such as that produced when a fish flips its tail. Goldfish have been found to orient towards conspecifics that are swimming, possibly due to them receiving tactile and visual cues from the movement.

What Does This Mean for Keeping Goldfish?

Group of red cap oranda goldfish
Goldfish accommodation should be adequately sized for fully-grown fish to be comfortable; there should also be enough space for them to move away from each other. Watts / CC BY 2.0

Goldfish need to be provided with sufficient space to move away from conspecifics if they desire, and their enclosures should accommodate the size of individuals when they are fully grown, even if they have not attained these lengths yet.

Although these fish are not usually aggressive, if there is a shortage of food they may display agonistic behaviors towards each other – so ensuring that they always have plenty on which to forage is essential to maintain good relationships within the pond or tank.

Charlotte P
About the author

Charlotte P

I'm passionate about wildlife and ecology and hold a degree in Zoology and a masters in Clinical Animal Behaviour. I'm fascinated by the ways animals adapt to their environments and cope with challenges. I am scientifically minded and dedicate much of my time to reading and research into my subject areas.

Read more about Pond Informer.

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