There’s an old joke about a traveling salesman who passed a farm and noticed a pig with a wooden leg. Next time he passed, the pig had two wooden legs. Then three, then four. He finally stopped and asked the farmer to explain the strange animal. The farmer called it the greatest pig alive, having saved the family from a burning house, one son from drowning, another from falling off the roof and the farmer himself from a tractor accident. When the salesman persisted and asked why this wonderful animal had four wooden legs, the farmer replied:
"Well now, a great pig like that - you don't eat him all at once!"
Perhaps that is why a fish with a human face is still swimming around in China, even after its video went viral, garnering millions of views worldwide. Most commenters agree it looks like a real fish with a face (a “face squid” according to some Chinese sites) and it looks like a real smart phone video that hasn’t been altered. If this fish were spotted in most U.S. ponds, it would soon be in an aquarium, earning its owner admission fees or rights. A fish like that, you don’t eat all at once (except perhaps in Louisiana). If this were a decade ago, David Letterman would be asking, “Is this anything?” Let’s play Paul Shaffer and find out.
Rough Google translations put the location of the pond in Kunming (not Kumming as many sites reported), the capital and largest city of Yunnan province in southwest China, and the witness being a tourist who recorded it on November 5th using TikTok and uploaded the video on Weibo, where it was picked up by the rest of the amazed world. The comments and speculations on what the human-face fish (or is it a fish-faced human? A reverse mermaid?) is run from the unbelievable (an alien or an alien creation; a hybrid or chimera) to the scientific (a Cyprinus carpio or common carp, which come in a wide variety of natural and human-bred colors and patterns). The reason why so many people see a face – at least when the fish is underwater … the face becomes more like spots when it surfaces – is due to face pareidolia (where the brain turns the unusual into something familiar in order to make sense of it) and/or anthropomorphism, which is our tendency to attribute animals with human behavior and looks (think about all those pictures of dogs resembling their owners – do they really?).
The debunking site Snopes found two examples of similar human-faced fish – one recorded in in a pond in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan, in April 2019, and one from an unknown location in 2010 whose face disappears when the fish is viewed from the side. Snopes had the latest TikTok video analyzed and determined that there was little indication the video was digitally doctored.
So, what we have is a video of what’s probably a normal carp with normal carpish markings that were distorted by reflective water to make us think we’re looking at a fish with a human face. The headlines blaring it definitely help create the pareidolic anthropomorphism – not to mention our need to be distracted from the rest of the bad news of the world.
And the best news is, it looks like the ‘face squid’ lives to star in another video ... without wooden fins.