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Fish are people, too July 6, 2011

Posted by Barbara in Sea creatures.

For my mother.

<cue Dragnet music>

The story you are about to read is true.   Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent….

Sometimes we experience something so unique that it is difficult to share.  Other people generally respond to things outside their own paradigm or expectation with disbelief at best.  Derision and laughter are equally common.  But, as Sgt. Friday says, “Only the facts, ma’am.”

Serpent Star


Chapter 1 –  Awakening

Snails are not the brightest of God’s creatures.  They fill their niche in the web of life admirably, eating algae and diatoms, scavenging morsels from the sand and rubble of the ocean floor, moving methodically across the ever-moving, ever-changing terrain of the sea.  The ability to plan ahead is not high in the skill-set.  It doesn’t, in fact, even exist, for all we can tell, in this lowly life form.

For humans, the frontal cortex, that part of the brain sitting prominently behind the skull of the forehead where it seems most vulnerable, has the role of planning, recognizing consequences, putting together the pieces of a sequence of action to foretell the future and predict needs.   We seldom consider lower life forms to have that capacity for planning and strategy, because we don’t see the same physical brain structures in other organisms that we have come to recognize play a crucial role in our own abilities.  Maybe it is this limitation, and our persistent unwillingness to recognize the reality in our own observations, that limits our search for understanding our place in the universe… and the value of all creatures.


Tara mulled these thoughts as she watched the drama play out in her personal reef.  She  spent as much time as she could allow from her day, watching and analyzing the creatures and ecosystems she had captured in the glass boxes in her living room.  And kitchen.  And office.  And bedroom.  Any space, in fact, that wasn’t covered in the other paraphernalia of life, generally held an aquarium of whatever size and shape would fit.  Saltwater reefs, freshwater ponds, biotopes of all sizes and varieties decorated the home with life.   Bookshelves of scientific, philosophical and anthropologic thought and theory bordered the remaining spaces – above the desk, in corners of the office, stacked in piles in the bedroom.  She read them all.  And, once (or twice) read, couldn’t bear to throw them away for fear they would be needed again to help refine a new insight or plan a new adventure.

Any space not given over to fish or philosophy, was taken by music.  The 1911 Knabe baby grand in the corner, carefully maintained.  The Martin guitar her husband had given her for Christmas that spent far too much time in its case because she spent so much of her free time watching the life within the glass boxes.  Learning.

The snail crawled along its random path, its mouth efficiently scraping algae from rock and glass.  It reached a different form, a glass tube enclosing a thermometer, and crawled onto it, continuing its methodical search for nourishment with no thought for what it had crawled onto or whether it would be stable.  “What will be, will be” must be the snail’s mantra, thought Tara, as she watched.

The thermometer was, in fact, not stable.  It had come loose from its cheap suction-cup mooring and floated into the corner of the aquarium beside the overflow at the top.  Now, with the weight of the large snail, it had floated away and sunk to hover near the bottom of the tank.   This created a problem for the snail, since any motion he took to crawl over the surface of the thermometer merely served to make it bob in the water.  With no stability, he couldn’t move forward.  And with no frontal cortex, he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t move, or plan a simple course of action in response – such as letting go and falling the inches to the bottom where he could simply continue on his way.

Tara watched him and wondered whether he would find a way to react to his predicament.  If he couldn’t move forward, he couldn’t continue to eat – which appeared to be the prime directive for snail kind.   Would he find a solution or simply starve to death, hanging on to his improbable perch?  She had seen many snails crawl to the top edge of the water in a tank and then die when the water level receded through evaporation – unable to respond to their situation by moving back down into the water.

Do snails feel stress, she wondered?  Produce scent hormones like higher level creatures in response to life-threatening situations?  Certainly the corals in the reef tank respond to their own perceived threats by releasing chemicals into the water to fend off competing organisms or make themselves unpalatable to predators.   Might other simple life forms do the same?

For a while,Tara watched, then turned her attention to other duties.  When she returned to the tank, the snail was still floating, firmly attached to his mobile death-trap.  “I guess I need to rescue him”, she thought.   The net she used for daily feeding and maintenance was on the table, but as she considered how long she should give him to fend for himself, she noticed the fish acting differently.

Most fish, unless they find them to be a personally preferred delicacy, pay no attention at all to snails.  This butterfly fish preferred to eat the meaty morsels of mysis shrimp and the occasional aptaisia or coral polyp.  But now, she was circling the snail, nipping experimentally a few times at his shell.  As she swam off,Tara reached for the net then stopped.  Something unexpected was happening here.

The butterfly fish had returned, bringing with her, from the far end of the tank, a kole tang.  The butterfly and the kole are quite different fish.  While the butterfly has a long, narrow nose and small mouth, equipping her to prod into cracks and small holes to find the copepods or coral polyps she favors, the kole has a very different niche.  He comes  equipped with brush-like ‘teeth’ he uses to chew the small turf algaes from the surface of the rocks.  Both fish went directly over to the snail now and swam around him.  The butterfly watched as the kole examined the situation, nipped a couple of times at the snail’s shell and retreated.

Tara watched.  It was obvious to her that these fish were, for whatever reason, suddenly interested in the snail – even though they had no normal culinary interest in him.  What else would drive these creatures?  Their brains are primitive by all recognized science – capable only of primary instincts: eat, run from predators, procreate.  Based on these primary needs, they could be trained to come to a certain area for feeding or would follow her motions around a tank.  Not much more.   What she was seeing was none of these.  She felt a curious sensation that she was being privy to something very special.

Most aquarists recognize that one of the joys of establishing an aquarium is the learning curve of seeing, appreciating and building the entire web of life that supports a natural ecosystem.  In balancing that tiny closed environment to be self-regulating and, as much as possible, self-supporting, one must be aware of the contributions of each life form – from bacteria to diatoms, algaes to fishes, corals to crabs to snails – each being fills a niche in the circle of life.  Each has its own patterns of behavior, food sources, requirements for light (or darkness), water movement, companionship.  Each interacts with others in pursuit of its own prime directive: survival.

The sea stars, ‘starfish’ to the layman, play many potential roles – depending on the species.  Many, like the serpent stars in this tank, are scavengers – generally cleaning left over food or detritus from the bottom of the tank.  Active mostly at night, they can be invisible during most of the day, hiding in rock crevices unless they recognize the presence of food in the tank.   During a feeding, these long-legged creatures may come out of the rockwork and snag a share of the frozen shrimp or clam suddenly falling through the water.   Little recognized by those outside the amateur aquarists who provide the bulk of the anecdotal observations that often drive scientific inquiry in marine science, serpent stars are quite photosensitive, reacting to light acutely.   For creatures with no obvious ‘eyes’, they also have the capacity to locate food in the water and reach out to collect it very accurately and very quickly. Tara was frequently amazed that a creature with such limited nervous system and brain, and no visible ‘eyes’ could apparently ‘see’ so well.

She watched quietly as the butterfly and kole examined the snail.  Neither fish would normally be interested in this creature at all.  He was neither a part of their food-web nor a competitor.  But for some reason, first the butterfly and then the kole came over and circled the trapped snail several times, nipping or nudging its shell.  “Are they looking for a meal?” Tara wondered.   It would be out of character, but fish in a closed environment don’t always maintain their natural dietary preferences or attitudes.  The fish didn’t seem bent on feeding, though.  They simply nudged the shell a few times and retreated, swimming to the rocks in the center of the tank.

And then the magic happened.

Out of those rocks, the serpent star appeared.  Totally contrary to its normal activity patterns, it had decided to brave the bright lights of the daytime reef.  And rather than roaming lazily around the tank in search of random bits of left-over food as it would do in the evening, it moved quickly and directly over to the thermometer.  Serpents are quite capable of moving across a large aquarium in a matter of seconds and this one obviously knew where it was going.

It reached the trapped snail, reached up to snag the thermometer and wrapped its arms around the snail.    She watched, mesmerized by the idea that this normally gentle scavenger was displaying a predator side.  She’d never seen or read about this before in this species.  But this was not the case.  The serpent wrapped his arms around the snail, pried him loose from the thermometer that was his unwitting captor….and dropped him.  Then, making no attempt at all to mount an attack on the snail, the seastar simply retreated quickly back to its favored dark hole to await the ‘lights out’ that signaled the time for his nightly cleaning rituals.

Tara stopped her work and sat down to consider what she had just seen and pulled out her notebook to make notes.  The rule: write only observations – not assumptions.

1)  She had stopped at the tank to watch the snail and had considered the need to rescue the snail.

2)  The butterfly fish had broken his usual behavior pattern by circling and nipping at the snail.

3)  The butterfly had swum to the other end of the tank and returned with the kole tang.

4)  Together, the two fish had circled the snail and then the butterfly waited while the kole circled alone and nipped at the snail’s shell.

5)  Both fish had swum to the center of the tank where the seastar normally hid during the day.

6)  The seastar had come out, breaking his normal behavior patterns, moved directly over to the snail, pulled it loose from its trap and retreated, making no effort to feed on the snail.

7)  The snail hit the bottom of the tank and turned itself over to continue its prime directive:  eat algae.

“They rescued the snail,”Tara thought.  It took a few minutes for this to register.  She really tried hard to counter the natural tendency to believe her aquatic charges had human qualities, mentally re-living the observation and reading her notes.

“They rescued that snail!”  What kinds of higher-level thinking did that require?  The butterfly fish had to realize somehow that the snail was in trouble.  Release of ‘stress hormones’ by the snail?   Did the fish somehow read Tara’s thought?  “Okay, now that’s too far out on the fringe,” she thought.  But the timing of the rescue was certainly coincidental.

The butterfly recognized and analyzed a problem (swimming in circles around it to observe from different angles ) and made an effort to change the situation with its available tools (a pointy nose.)  Then it actually looked for an alternate solution by bringing the kole tang over.  The fish communicated about the problem and shared concern for the snail’s predicament.  They recognized their own limitations in resolving the problem, determined what would constitute a better approach and decided which of their tankmates would be most likely to have the needed skill set.  They then communicated with the seastar, cross-species communication, directing him to the snail.

The seastar then acted directly in a way that benefited ONLY another creature, exposing himself to an uncomfortable and (in the wild at least) dangerous circumstance to aid that creature.

Tara looked again at the notes.  “I’ve been watching “Finding Nemo” too much, she decided.  And, as with many of the most important events we are privileged to observe, set it aside and went back to her chores.


The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.
                        ~Tom Clancy



1. Sea - July 10, 2011

I wrote this as an introductory chapter to a novel I’m working on. It’s very much still a work in progress but I’ll let you know how it’s going. Right now, it’s more a fun exercise in writing than serious business. The story, however, is true. 🙂

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