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Chilled Out Koi: How Koi Survive Frozen Ponds in Winter

If you live in a northern climate, then chances are good that you will see snow and ice just like your koi pond. It’s natural to worry about your koi during the winter seasons, especially if they’ve been around for years. Fortunately, koi are adapted to dealing with cold temperatures and a frozen pond. They have a few tricks up their sleeves to deal with the inevitability of icy water.

Regulation of body temperature

Animal thermoregulation, or how an animal regulates its body temperature, can be a confusing topic. For example, in the matter of thermoregulation there is:

– Ectothermic

– Endothermic

– Mesothermic

– Heterothermic

– Homeothermic

– Differentiated heat

– “Cold-blooded”

There are many variations in the world of animal temperature regulation, but to make it simpler for koi owners, you should know that your fish are ectothermic, meaning their internal body temperature is strictly governed by the ambient temperature (or in this case, the temperature of the water). This must mean that all fish are ectotherms, right? Not necessarily. Unfortunately, biology is not always consistent. For example, bluefin tuna and some sharks generate internal heat from muscle activity, but are still greatly affected by water temperature which places them in a category known as mesothermy. Furthermore, the term “cold-blooded” is actually not that accurate. A “cold-blooded” lizard in the hot desert sun can achieve an internal temperature greater than that of a human. Thus, in everyday conversation it is easier to refer to mammals and birds as endotherms and almost everything else as ectotherms.

Biological Activity and Temperature

You’ve probably noticed during the seasonal changes that as the water temperatures get colder, your fish start to become less active. As a result, they require less food and somewhere between 50 and 40 degrees F they stop eating all together. Ectotherms are able to achieve this because they do not need to maintain a certain internal temperature and, in fact, can get away with using as little as 10% of the energy a mammal would need. As temperatures drop, the rate of internal biological activity decreases, which includes things as basic as how fast a muscle can contract. This concept in biology is known as the Q-10 factor.

Design for winter

Not much activity with your fish, inside or out. They don’t need food and not as much oxygen, but it’s still a good idea to keep part of your pond thawed with a de-icer for gas exchange (and some pond owners will run year-round aeration). One of the things your koi will do is try to hang out in the warmest part of the pond and that will then be the deepest part. In general though, it’s a good idea when designing/building a koi pond to make it at least 3 feet deep to avoid the possibility of the pond freezing over. Another thing you may want to keep in mind is that adding salt to your pond before winter will lower the freezing point of the water and artificially cause your water to reach an extremely low temperature that can potentially harm the koi your.

Koi in hibernation

So what exactly are they doing under the ice? Sleep? Playing cards? As with thermoregulation, there are many different ways to stay inactive during the winter (or during times of less than ideal conditions). There is:

hibernation in mammals

dirt on reptiles

diapause in insects and

aestivation in invertebrates

but eventually your koi under the ice are in a state of dormancy. Essentially, they simply “chill out” in a state of greatly reduced activity and metabolism waiting for spring. You may not be able to enjoy your koi as they grind under the ice, but think of the money you save by not buying koi food!

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