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Fish Out Of Water
by [?]

The Indian snakehead is a closely allied species, common in the shallow ponds and fresh-water tanks of India, where holy Brahmans bathe and drink and die and are buried, and most of which dry up entirely during the dry season. The snakehead, therefore, has similarly accommodated himself to this annual peculiarity in his local habitation by acquiring a special chamber for retaining water to moisten his gills throughout his long deprivation of that prime necessary. He lives composedly in semi-fluid mud, or lies torpid in the hard baked clay at the bottom of the dry tank from which all the water has utterly evaporated in the drought of summer. As long as the mud remains soft enough to allow the fish to rise slowly through it, they come to the surface every now and then to take in a good hearty gulp of air, exactly as gold fish do in England when confined with thoughtless or ignorant cruelty in a glass globe too small to provide sufficient oxygen for their respiration. But when the mud hardens entirely they hibernate or rather aestivate, in a dormant condition, until the bursting of the monsoon fills the ponds once more with the welcome water. Even in the perfectly dry state, however, they probably manage to get a little air every now and again through the numerous chinks and fissures in the sun-baked mud. Our Aryan brother then goes a-fishing playfully with a spade and bucket, and digs the snakehead in this mean fashion out of his comfortable lair, with an ultimate view to the manufacture of pillau. In Burmah, indeed, while the mud is still soft, the ingenious Burmese catch the helpless creatures by a still meaner and more unsportsmanlike device. They spread a large cloth over the slimy ooze where the snakeheads lie buried, and so cut off entirely for the moment their supply of oxygen. The poor fish, half-asphyxiated by this unkind treatment, come up gasping to the surface under the cloth in search of fresh air, and are then easily caught with the hand and tossed into baskets by the degenerate Buddhists.

Old Anglo-Indians even say that some of these mud haunting Oriental fish will survive for many years in a state of suspended animation, and that when ponds or jhils which are known to have been dry for several successive seasons are suddenly filled by heavy rains, they are found to be swarming at once with full-grown snakeheads released in a moment from what I may venture to call their living tomb in the hardened bottom. Whether such statements are absolutely true or not the present deponent would be loth to decide dogmatically; but, if we were implicitly to swallow everything that the old Anglo-Indian in his simplicity assures us he has seen–well, the clergy would have no further cause any longer to deplore the growing scepticism and unbelief of these latter unfaithful ages.

This habit of lying in the mud and there becoming torpid may be looked upon as a natural alternative to the habit of migrating across country, when your pond dries up, in search of larger and more permanent sheets of water. Some fish solve the problem how to get through the dry season in one of these two alternative fashions and some in the other. In flat countries where small ponds and tanks alone exist, the burying plan is almost universal; in plains traversed by large rivers or containing considerable scattered lakes, the migratory system finds greater favour with the piscine population.

One tropical species which adopts the tactics of hiding itself in the hard clay, the African mud-fish, is specially interesting to us human beings on two accounts–first, because, unlike almost all other kinds of fish, it possesses lungs as well as gills; and, secondly, because it forms an intermediate link between the true fish and the frogs or amphibians, and therefore stands in all probability in the direct line of human descent, being the living representative of one among our own remote and early ancestors. Scientific interest and filial piety ought alike to secure our attention for the African mud-fish. It lives its amphibious life among the rice-fields on the Nile, the Zambesi, and the Gambia, and is so greatly given to a terrestrial existence that its swim-bladder has become porous and cellular, so as to be modified into a pair of true and serviceable lungs. In fact, the lungs themselves in all the higher animals are merely the swim-bladders of fish, slightly altered so as to perform a new but closely allied office. The mud-fish is common enough in all the larger English aquariums, owing to a convenient habit in which it indulges, and which permits it to be readily conveyed to all parts of the globe on the same principle as the vans for furniture. When the dry season comes on and the rice-fields are reduced to banks of baking mud, the mud-fish retire to the bottom of their pools, where they form for themselves a sort of cocoon of hardened clay, lined with mucus, and with a hole at each end to admit the air; and in this snug retreat they remain torpid till the return of wet weather. As the fish usually reach a length of three or four feet, the cocoons are of course by no means easy to transport entire. Nevertheless the natives manage to dig them up whole, fish and all; and if the capsules are not broken, the unconscious inmates can be sent across by steamer to Europe with perfect safety. Their astonishment when they finally wake up after their long slumber, and find themselves inspecting the British public, as introduced to them by Mr. Farini, through a sheet of plate-glass, must be profound and interesting.