How long can a goldfish survive if you swallow it?

A man taking part in the drinking dare game Neknomination drank a pint with two fish floating in it. This is very much not a good idea, for you OR the goldfish.

This morning's Sun claims that one of the pallbearers at Margaret Thatcher's funeral downed a pint of beer with two live goldfish in it. Really, it does:

"Neknomination", for those unaware, is the hot new craze among the young folk. In theory, someone records themselves necking a big drink in one gulp, posts it on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media, and then nominates someone else to take their turn. In practice, it's a war of one-upmanship, with people going to ever-greater lengths to try and make their drink outrageous - like, say, doing it while skateboarding, or mixing absinthe with hot sauce, or riding a horse into Tesco. Unsurprisingly, it's causing a full-blown moral panic in the media.

But we're here today to discuss a more pertinent question: what would happen to a goldfish if you swallowed it? How long would it survive?

A human stomach is a pretty horrible place for a living creature - dark, acidic, and full of nasty gasses from the breakdown of food. Yet we know that a goldfish wouldn't die straight away thanks to that episode of Jackass where Steve-O swallows and throws up a goldfish, (apparently) unharmed. YouTube's full of people paying tribute to Mr O, like these students:

While the goldfish survives in the Jackass clip, this one is not so lucky. Don't do this at home, kids.

Looking through YouTube, we can see that the fish that survive the up-and-down of being tortured by show-offs do so if not in the stomach for a very long time, and also if they're swallowed with a lot of water. That makes sense, as it would water down the stomach acid and make it less damaging.

It's also worth saying that the goldfish in the pint glass pictured on the front of the Sun would likely have been dead before before being swallowed. Carbon dioxide is as poisonous for fish as it is for humans, and that's all the fish would have been breathing in. More than that, though, is that alcohol is commonly used as an effective way to euthanise fish - something clear like vodka, added to a fish tank, will make the fish fall asleep and not wake up.

This is all terribly depressing, so here's a video of some divers almost getting eaten by two humpback whales (which, while not fish, are here included as de facto allies of the fish kingdom):

(Although, of course, humpback whales have a throat that is about as wide as a grapefruit - who needs anything larger when living exclusively on krill? - and would be incapable of swallowing something as large as a man. Alas.)

UPDATE 12/02/2014: We've now heard from marine biologist Alasdair Lindop, who has some more science about a goldfish's chances:

Generally a stomach would be pretty inhospitable to a goldfish, largely due to the high acid content and you'd need a pretty large amount of water to dilute that to something hospitable for any length of time.

Whilst alcohol would certainly anaethetise the fish, I wonder how long it would take with the percentage of alcohol in a pint. Probably more problematic for the fish would be all the sugars and carbon increased carbon dioxide in the beer. Fish breathe by passing the water (or beer) directly over their blood vessels in their gills, so being in a different solution would certainly stress them out a lot. How long they could survive in an acidic, sugary fizzy environment with a bit of alcohol is not something I could tell you from the top of my head!

The Jackass thing, if I remember correctly, was really quick so although the fish would be stressed, it's nothing a good dunking in a large bucket of fresh water immediately after couldn't solve.

So to give a vague answer to your question: it would really depend on what was in the stomach when the goldfish got there. If there was a fair bit of fresh water in there to start with it could probably survive a short while. (I'm guessing 5 mins-ish, but that's a huge guess!) The amount of food eaten by someone in the hour or so before swallowing the fish will be important, because if the stomach is trying to digest food, the concentration of acid will be much higher.

If that doesn't kill it, suffocation probably will as what little dissolved oxygen there is will get used up fairly shortly, unless the participant has drunk a fair chunk of water.

No goldfish were harmed in the writing of this article. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Photo: Getty
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Your life's work, ruined – how storms can wipe out scientific research in an instant

Some researchers face the prospect of risking their own lives to save valuable scientific research that could benefit future generations.

Before the autumn of 2012, if you went into the basement of New York University's School of Medicine in Manhattan, you would find a colony of more than 3,000 live mice. This was the collection of Gordon Fishell, the associate director of the NYU Neuroscience institute, which he had spent more than 20 years building up, and which he was using to discover how neurons communicate with other cells.

As Hurricane Sandy began to approach New York State, Fishell and his colleagues, like others in the city, made preparations for the onslaught. This meant leaving extra food and water for their colonies, and making sure that emergency power was on.

But no one anticipated the size and intensity of the hurricane. On the day it finally arrived, Fishell was forced by the weather to stay home, and to his horror he saw that his lab was now in the path of the storm. As he wrote later in Nature magazine: "We were done for. It was obvious that our labs were in great danger, and there was nothing I could do." All of Fishell's mice drowned. Furthermore, scientific equipment and research worth more than $20m was destroyed.

In seeing years of academic work wiped out by a storm, Fishell and his colleagues at the School of Medicine are not alone. In 2001, Hurricane Allison, a tropical storm turned hurricane, had caused similar devastation at Texas Medical Centre, the world's largest such research centre, inflicting at least $2bn in damages. In 2011, the Japanese tsunami hit Tohoku University’s world-renowned Advanced Institute for Materials Research and destroyed some of the world’s best electron microscopes, as well as $12.5m in loss of equipment.

Such stories used to be seen as unique and unfortunate incidents. But the increasing incidence of extreme weather events over the last 20 years has highlighted the dangers of complacency.

Not only do facilities affected by natural disasters lose decades of irreplaceable research, but many contain toxic chemicals which could be potentially deadly if released into the water or food supply. During the 2007 floods in the UK, a foot and mouth outbreak was traced back to a lab affected by heavy rain. In Houston, during the recent Hurricane Harvey, leakages from industrial facilities contaminated the floodwater. 

Gradually, university deans and heads of research facilities in the United States have realised that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is badly prepared for this kind of problem. "They had never thought of how to deal with a research loss," Susan Berget, the vice president of emergency planning at Baylor College of Medicine told Nature in 2005. "To them, transgenic mice are a foreign concept."

It therefore falls on universities, local communities and regional governments to ensure they are adequately prepared for disasters. A common complaint is the lack of guidance they receive. 

Often, researchers who choose to save valuable scientific research are putting their lives at risk. One particularly harrowing story was that of biochemist Dr Arthur Lustig, who spent four days in his Tulane university laboratory before being evacuated to a shelter. Despite his tenacity, he lost more than 80 per cent of his work on yeast strains, carried out over 20 years, to flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Other than the immediate, heartbreaking effects of losing research, natural disasters also pose a threat to future investment. If a region is increasingly seen as not disaster resilient, it reduces the amount of federal and private funding for groundbreaking research, as well as applications from prospective researchers.

A recent report in the journal of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine quantified this link. It found that varius tropical storms led to as many as 120 researchers losing their livelihoods. In one instance, a psychology internship for high schoolers was discontinued. 

Disasters like hurricanes and tropical storms are usually thought of as high risk but low probability events. As Bill McKibben noted in the Guardian, Hurricane Harvey was a once in 25,000 years kind of storm, but the “normal” measurements of incidence cannot necessarily be held as true anymore. Just like the rest of us, researchers will have to be prepared for every possibility.