Bubbly Fish, "Old McDonald"

Dear Matt:

Why does my fish blow bubbles? Sometimes it will just be hanging out and all of a sudden it will cut loose with a bubble from its mouth. How does air get in there, and why would it do that? This isn’t the biggest question in the world, but it sure would help my brain if you could solve the mystery.

— Anonymous, San Diego

Reminds me of the week the elves hacked up fur balls. Grandma was in a tizzy, what with all the cleanup. Nobody could figure out what the deal was. We never know what the heck they’ll come up with, so we half suspected this was some sort of Christmas joke they’d cooked up. But, no. Turns out Ma Alice had run into a great deal on a big pile of angora scarves that she figured would make great stocking stuffers. But when she wound up the elves in their cold-weather clothes and kicked them outside for a little exercise, they would inhale enough angora to pretty much knock them out. Once we gave the scarves to the dog to play with, the problem was solved, well, once the dog stopped hacking up angora.

So let me haul out the Matthew Alice Xtremely Good Crystal Ball and take a look into the home of Anonymous. What do we see? Hmmm... Okay, Anon, we’re betting you have one of those popular, fancy blue fish that people somehow think can live nicely in a shot glass or a pickle jar but die pretty soon after they’re brought home. Right? A betta. They blow bubbles occasionally. So do gouramis, another popular family pet. Both are actually capable of breathing air in addition to absorbing it through their gills the way all the rest of the unimaginative fish do. They have a labyrinth organ that handles air “inhaled” in a gulp from the top of the fishbowl. When they’ve got more than enough in their little bodies, they’ll burp up a bubble to get rid of the excess.

These and other so-called labyrinth fish (the males) use their bubble-blowing talent to make egg nests for the female. Nesting bubbles are coated in mucus before they’re burped to the surface and stick together to form a nifty nursery where the eggs are laid.

But wait. There’s more. Many other fish are capable of spitting out air. It’s part of their buoyancy routine. If a fish didn’t have a swim bladder, when you dropped it into the tank it would sink to the bottom, of course. So the swim bladder retains enough air to keep the fish balanced in the water. Fish that have swim bladders connected to their guts can whip out a bubble if they’re feeling a little too lightheaded. So that’s the deal with bubble-blowing fish, and your brain should be feeling terrific now.

Hey, Matthew:

The other morning while tending to my herd, my top Guernsey looked down at me and

said, “In ‘Old McDonald,’ does or did

E-I-E-I-O mean something?” I said, “I dunno.” She said, “I think it’s just a nonsensical unalliterated collection of orthography used simply as musical meter.”

I said, “Huh?” She said, “Ask Matt.” A smart-aleck steak dinner may be riding on your answer.

— Cletus, the Urban Farmer, San Diego

Heighdy, Cletus. Pull uppa crate an’ set yerse’f down. I think we kin give ya sumpin’ to chaw on. Don’ know fer sher, a’course, since Ol’ McDonald wuz a pop’lar song long afore it was writ down. We kin look back’ards thru paper stuff, but not singin’ stuff, so sorry. Anyways, there’s a opry song from England from the early 1700s that has some of the same stuff as “Ol’ McDonald” an’ mebbe is the first version. Lotsa different versions around, all with the “moo-moo,” “quack-quack,” etc., stuff into the late 1800s, but not the E-I-E-I-O stuff. Fer some reason, “Ol’ McDonald” hit the charts in the U.S. after 1900. A bust-out winner with folk singers and like that. At the time, one pop’lar version went, “Ol’ McDonald had a farm down in O-hi-o. And on that farm he had a cow, down in O-hi-o.” So mebbe some singer who figgered the farmer really lived in Nebraska or Indiana changed the “O-hi-o” to “E-I-E-I-O.” Easy to do. Not much of a leap. Do ya buy that? Then I guess ya also buy the steaks. Righty?

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