What is the Difference between Lionheads and Ranchu?

Back in 1995, I started asking people what the differences were between ranchu and lionhead goldfish. I got some concrete stuff and also some pretty nebulous stuff. Things like "ranchu live longer and swim more elegantly". Looking at pictures, I thought I could see some obvious differences. But I also found pictures where I though the caption was wrong.

A conversation with Jackie Chan in August of 1996 cleared some of this up. Jackie is a major goldfish breeder and exporter in Hong Kong. I commented to him that I thought many of the lionheads I had seen in recent books looked a lot like ranchu. He told me that the popularity of the ranchu had created a market interest in lionheads with "improved" tails and backs. That is, more similar to the ranchu. Previously these had been largely ignored features in the lionheads they were breeding.

I also have a suspicion that I haven't confirmed with anyone that some of the more recent colors in ranchu (like black or blue) may have been introduced through crosses with lionheads. The side effect here is that the ranchu have shallower backs than normal, bigger tails, and more headgrowth. The book "Goldfish in Hong Kong" shows examples of both the ranchu-like lionheads and the lionhead-like ranchu. Confronted with one of these fish, I would be unable to say which breed it was.

Traditionally, however, there are distinct differences beween these two breeds:

  1. Lionheads have much more headgrowth than ranchu. Some ranchu, like the Edonishiki, have very little headgrowth at all. Lionheads, on the other hand, may have their vision obscured and breathing impaired by the degree of headgrowth.
  2. Ranchu have a tremendous emphasis on the smooth but dramatic curvature of the back. Lionhead backs tend to be flat or shallowly curved and may be quite bumpy (though this seems to be being bred away from).
  3. The ranchu caudal fin is supposed to form a 45 degree angle with the back. Lionhead caudal fins form nowhere near as dramatic an angle, are usually held lower, and can be quite a bit larger that the ranchu tails.
  4. Andy Filu, in an old Goldfish Report article, mentions the difference in body shape. He says that the ranchu was bred to resemble a Japanese coin. I interpret this to mean that the ranchu have a very round side profile, while the lionheads are "boxier".
  5. I would also guess that the tremendous emphasis on the length and width of the ranchu peduncles is not shared by the lionhead breeders. Along with the floppier tails, the lionhead peduncles seem to be longer and thinner than those of the ranchu.

Historically, the ranchu has been known in Japan since the 1700's and the first competitive ranchu exhibition was in 1885. The lionhead is about 300 years older and most authors have assumed that the ranchu was derived from the lionhead. Interestingly, in Dr. Smartt's new book on goldfish breeding and genetics, he argues that the ranchu and the lionhead are the same fish. Dr. Smartt backs this up with the observation that you can select fish with either set of varietal characteristics discussed above from any given single spawn of either variety. Not sure if I buy this.

The GFSA has been working on a set of judging guidelines that include ranchu and lionheads. With the kind permission of the GFSA, I reprint two of the illustrations below, to try to reinforce the points made above.

Side view of a lionhead ( 1996 Goldfish Society of America. Reprinted with permission)

Side view of a ranchu ( 1996 Goldfish Society of America. Reprinted with permission)