A Nurse with a Gun

Sunday, September 02, 2007

An Accounting

Two weekends ago, I found myself sweltering without air conditioning in my home. Initially, I tried to stay and prepare for a class while my wife and child bailed out and enjoyed a stay at the Holiday Inn. Our air conditioning was eventually repaired and working again five days later, on Tuesday. At that time, relieved but devastated, I revealed a little known fact about myself.

I am a fishkeeper. Fishkeepers are odd folk. They take a creature they find beauty in, and remove it from it's natural environment, an environment where we cannot easily, nor routinely observe the creature at all. The fishkeeper then takes that creature and places it in an environment they have created to approximate the natural one. If the fishkeeper is successful, his prisoner charge lives, If the environment is faulty, the creature dies. Thus, a fishkeeper is not just a keeper of fish. He is a warden of an entire ecosystem within a glass cage.

I am not just any old fishkeeper. I am a salt encrusted, critter infested, brine blooded marine fishkeeper. I run saltwater tanks. Four of them. From bacteria that live within the rock, to fish that swim among the rocks, from the salinity, to the temperature, to the current, to the molecular structure of the water itself, the marine tank cage is a fragile ecosystem that must be kept in balance. New marine fishkeepers often analyze their water every 12 hours. Kits are available to do just that. A new fishkeeper often becomes a "slave to the tank", rearranging rock, performing 50% weekly water changes and valliantly striving to better their miniature environments. Silverback fishkeepers know better. They know the oils on their hands can destroy homeostasis. They tend to stay out of the tank. These are the same guys you see at Lowes in the PVC section scratching their chins. I had long ago become one of them. I simply observed the coral or the fish themselves and knew what my tanks needed. Hell, I had not checked my water in two years, and 30% water changes were done about every eight months!

One of the quick lessons a marine any fishkeeper quickly learns is that sea life, whether fresh or salt, must eat. You cannot feed them enough without polluting their environment. You walk a fine line between starvation and cannibalism. You see, they will eat each other. Saltwater fish are by and large predatory. Coral reefs are teeming with life, because living there is like living in Brookshires. Fish eat crustaceans. Fish eat coral. Coral eats fish! And yes, crustaceans eat fish too. So, if a marine fishkeeper wants to enjoy the true diversity of marine life, he can observe his charges consuming each other, or he can study and learn their diets and keep them in separate tanks.

Local fish stores are well known in reefer circles for taking advantage of the uneducated or newbie fishkeeper aquarist. They will shrewdly first sell the tank, cabinetry and twice the necessary equipment to support life, at twice the going rate. Next, they will do the same with seawater. The fish store will assist the novice aquarist in building an ecosystem that will support life, and will carefully suggest fish that will tolerate each other. The novice fishkeeper is joyous. Life is good. The tank is a success. Visits to the fish store decline........Finally, the fish store will covertly suggest a serial killer into the tank. Perhaps a Clown Trigger (Balistoides conspicillum) into a fish (or reef) tank. A crown of thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) into a home kept coral reef. The result is the same as releasing a rabid, starved, grizzly loose in a daycare center. The fish store now has either a returning customer to encourage to repeat the cycle, or an angry person willing to sell back the tank and equipment for pennies. The rejected equipment is often repurchased at half price and reused by more experienced customers who know every local fish store has a "back room" full of the stuff. Just follow the smell of live rock curing, and a novice becomes instantly educated in the business of staying in business selling fish.

The vastness of the oceans has evolved a fish with a fragile tolerance for temperature extremes. It is always possible to find a comfortable thermocline in the sea. If it's a bit hot, go down or North. A bit cool? Go up or go South. Strangely, coral is often more tolerant of temperature extremes than marine fish. Most coral grows near the equator where the water stays a nice even temperature year round, but coral cannot easily move and tides affect the water depth, and thus the temperatures. Maintaining a constant temperature is critical for captive marine life. Here in Louisiana, our heating systems are primitive by Northern standards. When winter might last 15 days and we might see snow once in a decade, we just don't worry about it. Build a fire in the fireplace if necessary. It makes one wonder why we even have fireplaces anyway.........Air conditioning, however, is our life support system. In the humid heat of July, it is not uncommon to see people drive two blocks in an air conditioned car and circle in a parking lot looking for a space rather than walk five minutes in the heat. It's all about maintaining the body's hydration within the epidermis. I actually kept thermostatically controlled heaters in my tanks to reverse the effects of the air conditioning and keep the temperatures warm enough.

I did not suspect that my air conditioning was also a life support system for my fish tanks. Sadly, it was. I lost all but two fish. As the service men were reinstalling a new compressor on my central air system, I was scooping corpses out of the tanks. Even the bacteria in the live rock was potentially deceased, or very well fed. The den stunk like a Pusan fish market. Two fish survived, a Clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) and a Four Stripe Damselfish (Dascyllus melanurus), both tough, resilient fish. It now appears that some small hermit crabs survived as well.

Among the dead are:

Reef tank:
Longnose Hawkfish (Oxycirrhites typus)
Six Line Wrasse (Pseudocheilinus hexataenia)
Orchid Dottyback (Pseudochromis fridmani)
Zebra Gobies (Ptereleotris zebra)
Firefish (Nemateleotris magnifica)
Kole Tang (Ctenochaetus strigosus)
Target Mandrian (Synchiropus picturatus)
Lawnmower Blenny (Salarias fasciatus)
Engineer Goby (Pholidichthys leucotaenia)
Cleaner Shrimp (Lysmata amboinensis)
Coral Banded Shrimp (Stenopushispidus)
Sally Lightfoot Crabs (Percnon gibbesi)
Emerald Crabs (Mithrax sculptus)
Arrow Crab (Stenorhynchus seticornis)
Blue Legged Hermit Crabs (Clibanarius tricolor)
Red Legged Hermit Crabs (Clibanarius sp.)
Scarlet Legged Hermit Crabs (Paguristes cadenati)
Serpent Starfish (Ophiolepsis superba)
Brain Coral (Platygyra daedalea)
Brain Coral (Goniastera australensis)
Hammer Coral (Euphyllia parancora)
Bubble Coral (Plerogyra sinuosa)
Frog Spawn (Euphyllia glabrescens)
Daisy Coral (Alveopora sp.)
Leather Coral (Sarcophyton sp.)
Yellow Leather Coral (Sarcophyton elegans)
Encrusting Gorgonian (Briarium sp.)
Green Leather Coral (Nepthea sp.)
Donut Coral (Cynarina lacrymalis)
Artichoke Coral (Scolymia vitiensis)
Yellow Colony Polyps (Parazoanthus gracilis)
Copper Button Polyps (Palythoa sp.)
Pink Ricordea (Ricordea sp.)
Green Mushrooms (Rhodactis sp.)
Marbled Mushrooms (Discosoma sp.)
Pink Pulse Coral (Xenia sp.)
Blue Pulse Coral (Xenia elongata)

Aggressive tank:
Picasso Triggerfish (Rhinecanthus aculeatus)
Bursa Triggerfish (Rhinecanthus verrucosus)
Arabian Triggerfish (Rhinecanthus assasi)
Undulate Triggerfish (Balistapus undulatus)
Clown Triggerfish (Balistoides conspicillum)
Niger Triggerfish (Odonus niger)
Yellow Tang (Zebrasoma flavescens)
Porcupine Puffer (Diodon holacanthus)
Blue Spotted Puffer (Canthigaster epilamprus)
Flame Angelfish (Centropyge loriculus)
Mandrian Dragonet (Synchiropus splendidus)
Yellowtail Coris (Coris gaimard)
Engineer Gobies (Pholidichthys leucotaenia)
Big Hairy Hermits (Dardanus megistios)

Venomous tank:
Volitan Lionfish (Pterois volitans)
Octopus (Octopus briareus)
Longhorn Cowfish (Lactoria cornuta)
Engineer Goby (Pholidichthys leucotaenia)
Yellow Watchman (Cryptocentrus cinctus)
Blue Legged Hermit Crabs (Clibanarius tricolor)
Red Legged Hermit Crabs (Clibanarius sp.)
Scarlet Legged Hermit Crabs (Paguristes cadenati)
Serpent Starfish (Ophiolepsis superba)

Nursery/Nano tank:
Bicolor Pseudochromis (Pseudochromis paccagnella)
Browncheek Blenny (Acanthemblemaria crockeri)
Fancy Mushrooms (Discosoma mummiferus)
Hawaiian Feather Dusters (Sabellastarte sp.)
Christmas Tree Worms (Spirobranchus porites)
Brittle Sea Star (Ophiure protoreaster)

The tanks are reaching homeostasis again.
Yesterday, I went to look at some more hermits and maybe a sea star or two........

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Blogger chris said...

So sorry about the loss of your fishes. I used to have a cowfish and a pufferfish. Our pufferfish used to dance with our girls which was really amusing to watch.

What will you do differently if you are go experience this again? Will putting in tank water ice cube help?



10:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry to hear of the carnage,however....
for an emergency,you may want a good sized window unit,just for the den and hemostasis to keep itself from declining into entropy.
a 10,000 btu window unit wil keep a sub ground floor room positively frigid,and a mid floor room very very comfortable.

11:49 AM  
Anonymous Timmeeee said...

Beautiful photos, did you take them?

4:35 PM  
Blogger Xavier said...

No Timmeee,
Unfortunately I had to swipe them. I did not have photos of much of it, and it was just to depressing to photograph dead fish. The pictures are representative of the loses though.

5:37 PM  
Anonymous Rabbit said...

Bummer. Sorry for your loss. After we closed up the coffeehouse we loaned out our big tank to other biologist friends, who now have it set up as a Central American river tank. Now that we're in the big house, we've ben thinking of putting together another big tank; probably 110 to 250 gallons, with New World ciclids. Either that, or a single oscar. A good oscar is as entertaining as a new puppy.

Once again, sorry for your loss. That's a serious monetary hit you took.


12:20 AM  
Blogger phlegmfatale said...

Holy mackerel! That's a lot of $pecimen lost! Sorry to hear it. My favorite freshwater fish are the filthiest: ornamental goldfish. I've had a couple tanks, but last time I finished off a tank, I vowed I wouldn't do that again until I could afford A) a saltwater setup and B) to pay a service for most of the maintenance

I think there is no pet a person can own that rivals the beauty of a saltwater tank.

Glad to hear the systems are on the path to recovery.

9:19 PM  

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