Magazine article Science News

Fish as Farmers: Reef Residents Tend an Algal Crop

Magazine article Science News

Fish as Farmers: Reef Residents Tend an Algal Crop

Article excerpt

A damselfish cultivates underwater gardens of an algal species that researchers haven't found growing on its own.

The special alga could be the fishy version of people's domesticated crops, says Hiroki Hata of Kyoto University in Japan. Growth tests of the alga, surveys of its distribution, and genetic analyses support that idea, he and Makoto Kato say in an upcoming Biology Letters.

People have been slow to get the hang of farming. Starting millions of years before the rise of human agriculture, certain ants, termites, and ambrosia beetles grew fungi for food. Today, they sow, fertilize, and weed their crops. A few of these spineless cultivators even employ bacteria to make pesticides.

In simpler systems, sometimes referred to as protofarming, mollusks called limpets and certain damselfish graze in territories of edible algae. Hata and Kato have been analyzing the Stegastes nigricans damselfish's patches of a Polysiphonia, which is categorized as a red alga. The fish defends what looks like a piece of "brown carpet on the reefs," says Hata. The fish nips out bits of other algae and swims outside its territory to spit them out.

Hata and Kato began to suspect that the brown carpet might not persist untended. For example, when they kidnapped the resident damselfish, other fish and sea urchins ate up the alga within days. When the researchers caged farms to keep out both the farmer and interlopers, algae of other species quickly overwhelmed the brown carpet. …

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