Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The life aquatic

My mom was a kindergarten teacher. Now that she’s retired, her house and garage are full of things that are infinitely interesting to a four year old. From various types of blocks and puzzles to an endless supply of playdoh toys and shelves full of children’s books, it’s no wonder Josh loves going to Gigi’s house.

One afternoon a few months ago, they were looking for an old box of costumes in the garage when Gigi stumbled on the small fresh-water fish tank from her classroom. She brought it in, cleaned it up, and offered to fill it with fish for Josh to take home. So they took a field trip to the local wet pet store. They arrived intending to buy some goldfish, but they were quickly talked into three platies, which are a little smaller but much cleaner than their carp bretheren.

When I arrived at my mom’s house to pick up Josh that day, he ushered me into the bathroom to introduce me to Chris, Martin, and Zoboomafoo. He couldn’t have been prouder of his first pets, and I have to admit I was also a bit enthralled. After a tumultuous trip across town in the trunk, the platies arrived at their new home, and we set them up on Josh’s bathroom counter, which gets great light and seemed like the ideal place for a tank full of water should we ever have an earthquake.

Josh pops in to visit them several times a day. He’s gotten quite proficient at shaking the red can full of colorful flakes into the water, and he loves to just sit and watch them swim around. I dutifully check on them every morning to ensure they all made it through another night. I had enough goldfish as a child to know that it’s not uncommon to wake up to a floater.

Several weeks went by, and Chris, Martin, and Zoboomofoo were all swimming strong—until one evening when we were brushing our teeth, and Josh noticed that Martin was sleeping at the bottom of the tank, upside down. I was forced to explain the cycle of life while flushing one of his first pets down the toilet. We had lost his great-grandma to Alzheimer’s disease only a month earlier, and he was just starting to realize that he would never see her again. Suddenly, I could see Josh equating that death to this one. And he had a lot of questions.

After an evening of deep talks about how and why things die and who is and is not going to die anytime soon, I promised to take him back to the fish store for another platy. So the next day, Josh introduced me to the store’s resident cockatoo that was on a timeout on his perch because he squawked too loudly while the shop owner was on the telephone. We oogled the various tropical fish, found Nemo again and again in a tank of clown fish, and tried to get the Cockatoo to talk. We examined the turtles, snakes, and lizards while Josh plotted how to make them his next pets, and I strategized about how to permanently avoid reptiles in my home.

While we arrived planning to replace our dearly departed platy with another similar platy, we were talked into trying a balloon molly instead. This plump white fish looked like an angel fish who had seriously overeaten. With tiny side fins that pumped at double speed and prolific caudal and dorsal fins, she was absolutely adorable, and we were sold. We also took home a small plant for the tank to keep everyone satiated between feedings and to add extra ambience to our fresh water paradise.

We introduced both molly and tree to their new habitat when we got home and sprinkled in some food. The molly flapped its side fins in utter excitement as she fervently chased bright orange and green flakes around the aquarium. She seemed to dance from side to side as she moved. Her enthusiasm was contagious. I looked at Josh and asked what he was going to name her. He thought a minute and then said, “White Chocolate!”

About a week later, I noticed what I thought were small pebbles from the bottom sticking to the sides of the tank. Upon closer examination, I realized that the pebbles had small, transparent shells. I quickly called Eric in and asked him what he thought they were. “They look like little snails,” he said matter-of-factly. That’s what I was afraid of. I examined the tank and found five little snails slowly making their way up the glass walls. Where did they come from? I looked suspiciously at White Chocolate but then quickly realized that the tree must have had snail eggs on it when we bought it. After a little time on Google, I discovered the snails were my friends. They help keep the tank clean. And Josh was thrilled to have more pets.

Two nights later, I noticed more sticky pebbles—nine to be exact. And a couple nights after that, there were fifteen. Uh oh. I suddenly envisioned snails covering the walls and decided I had to figure out where they were coming from. That’s when Josh came in and said, “Daddy and I found a gigantic snail in my tank.”

I had noticed that one of the little snails seemed to be growing a little, so I pointed it out. “Yes, that one seems to be getting big.”

“No, this one!” Josh shouted as he pointed to the back wall of the tank. I craned my neck around to see what he was talking about and let out a shriek as I saw a brown snail the circumference of a penny racing across the glass. Where did that come from?

The next morning, I called the wet pet store and explained my snail problem. The crabby man on the other end of the line didn’t seem to think I had a problem at all. “The large snail must have come on the plant, and it has been laying eggs. Your tank is a living environment. Life happens.” I could practically hear him snort as he hung up on me. Back to Google I went.

It seems he was right. Although none of the goldfish endeavors of my youth yielded this kind of excitement, and my mom had never discovered uninvited guests in her classroom tank, this sort of thing does happen. And Darwin’s theory of natural selection would ensure I did not inadvertently start my own snail hatchery. I decided to chalk this one up to biology and do what Josh was doing: watch and learn.

The snails have indeed seemed to self-regulate. And more than a few have ended up in the filter. Counting them has become a daily fascination, and thus far, none has seemed to survive long enough to significantly challenge the fish-to-snail ratio. The big hermaphroditic snail does lap after lap around the tank, covering every square inch in an hour or less. And we now recognize the abundant jelly blobs it lays and watch as they develop into litters of tiny snails that are often gone as quickly as they appear.

The fish have seemed to change a bit as well. Since we introduced the balloon molly, the other two platies don’t seem to get along as well. The pecking order has evidently been disturbed. While White Chocolate stays to herself, I have seen platy Chris nipping Zoboomafoo’s tail on numerous occasions, and Zoboomafoo now spends more and more time hiding in the foliage.

This morning as I was getting Josh ready for sports camp, I did my morning fish check. The platies swam peacefully around, but the usually giddy white molly wasn’t so giddy. And she wasn’t so white either. It took me a minute to realize that she was swimming upside down, or rather bobbing near the filter intake. And her once pearly white complexion was now dark. I said a silent prayer for our enthusiastic fish friend and ushered Josh out of the bathroom before he noticed so I could spare him the gory details.

After I dropped Josh off at camp, I returned to the bathroom and got out the small green net my mom had given us along with various other fish supplies. I quietly scooped White Chocolate out of the tank and into the porcelain vortex that would usher her to the afterlife, or more likely, the local sewer. I thought about what I would tell Josh and wondered how long it would be before we were back at the pet store picking out another fragile friend.

As I rinsed the net and returned it to the drawer below the tank, I peered in at our two remaining pets. And I noticed a tiny dark fish the size of a grain of rice swimming out from and back underneath a large conch shell at the bottom of the aquarium. I blinked and looked again. Oh my. It was indeed a baby fish. A platy, no doubt. I studied the two obvious suspects carefully, remembering their recent bickering. Perhaps Chris wasn’t simply trying to re-establish the fish power hierarchy. It was clear now that he was simply trying to spread his seed. And he evidently succeeded. Maybe all that quiet time Zoboomafoo spent swaying in the green branches wasn’t due to illness or imminent death. It seems she was simply gestating.

So I’ll pick up Josh today with a bit of bad news and a bit of good news. Nature giveth and Nature taketh away. The crabby man at the fish store was right. Life happens. Isn’t ichthyology grand?

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