Magazine article Natural History

Damsels Cause Distress

Magazine article Natural History

Damsels Cause Distress

Article excerpt

After waffling for years, my husband took the plunge and purchased a large saltwater aquarium for his office. That he did so while I was out of town at a conference may have shown, a certain lack of confidence that I would react favorably, but he needn't have worried: I was hooked right from the start.

The tropical fish tank came fully equipped: pumps, filters, hoses, light fixtures, coral arrangements, and a small cadre of lively black-and-whitestriped damselfish, also called demoiselles. These gals, however, were no ladies-in-waiting. Like many coral-reef species, damselfish are aggressive and highly competitive. As we soon discovered, even small fish can display some mighty big attitude.

Take our alpha female, a fish that quickly earned the name Tuffy. This one-inch wonder ruled every inch of the tank, demanding-and getting-the most food, the best hiding place, the last word in everything. What's more, the dominant demoiselle seemed to flaunt her power, chasing her underlings and pinning them into corners of the aquarium. Sometimes Tuffy kept them trapped for hours before allowing them to escape. As I watched these daily shenanigans, I was compelled to note the similarities between the world offish and the world of business. I had run into quite a few Tuffys in my time.

Soon after the aquarium arrived, my husband decided to add two small snails to the system, hoping to control the growth of algae. When he popped them into the water, the pair went to work, slowly scouring the gravel at the bottom of the tank with their little antennae. "Ah, another fish-tank phenomenon to marvel at," I thought.

But Tuffy thought otherwise. Within minutes of the snails' arrival the hostilities commenced. Tuffy began the assault by dive-bombing the newcomers, swimming first to the top of the tank to gather momentum, then crashing straight into them at full force. The snails scattered under the fury of the attack. …

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