Q: Why do koi have barbels?
Janice – Clear Creek, KY
A: Koi have been growing trendy whiskers way before the hipsters made it cool! Those whiskers—or barbels—are a defining characteristic of the fish. Here’s what they are, what they do, and why the popular pond fish has them.
Barbels are sensory organs not unlike whiskers in mammals. Rather than being used for tactile sensing, however, a fish’s barbels are used for taste. Koi, along with catfish, goatfish, hagfish, sturgeon, zebrafish, some species of shark and other carp, have barbels. They use these taste bud-covered organs to search for food in murky water.
Tasting Without Ingesting
Koi and other carp have four barbels, with two on each side of the koi’s mouth (termed “maxillary barbels”). The top two appear shorter than the lower two, but they all serve the same purpose: taste debris without actually ingesting it. Being omnivorous scavengers that forage along murky pond and river bottoms, it’s a good survival skill to have.
As spring approaches and you start feeding your finned pals some Spring and Fall Fish Food, take a closer look at these weird appendages. Most koi (except those with mutations) have barbels—even koi fry have them! So go grab a pond net, catch a koi or fingerling, and look closely to see them.
As with hipsters and their whiskers, they probably won’t like you playing with their barbels. But they’re still fun to look at!
Pond Talk: Are some of your koi’s barbels bigger than others?
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