Tale of Fatty Fish and his Urchin(s)

A few months ago we got a Greenbanded Goby, and we called him Tiny Fish because, well, because he was so tiny.

Tiny Fish was good-natured and sweet but mostly kept to himself. Sometimes if the Blennies were in a tizzy he’d go check things out, “What’s up guys? What’s going on? We eatin’ stuff? Can I join?” But like the overzealous kid on the playground in the unseasonable striped Christmas sweater, he got left out of the fun.

So, Tiny Fish skipped around on the rocks by himself, blithely but a tad lonesome, and he ate a lot of stuff too. And then one day he transformed into Fatty Fish, his striped Christmas sweater straining awkwardly around his midsection. The Blennies seemed more embarrassed to suffer his company and more hostile, because they had only eyes for dinner time, and here was this barrel-shaped little fish who was clearly here to infringe upon their dinner!

They chased him away from angry Blenny-Rock, but this did nothing to dampen Fatty Fish’s spirits. Fatty Fish knew one day he’d make a friend, and that friend would be the most wonderful friend. So he skipped around some more and ate a lot more.

Well.

Last week we got in another shipment of critters, and among them was a Purple Short Spine Pincushion Urchin. Alas, he hadn’t traveled well, and the bag he arrived in looked very sad. Maybe he’d even gotten sick in there:

Usually we’d let him adjust more slowly between bag water and tank water, but clearly the bag water was not something we wanted getting out into the general population. Poor Urchin didn’t take well to the sudden change in water, but there wasn’t much to be done for it.

The Urchin sat unhappily on a rock for a while before Fatty Fish took the opportunity to come over and see what was going on, and then, to our dismay, Fatty Fish seemed to dart in with his mouth and pick off a piece of the urchin to eat! No, Fatty Fish! Are you that much of a glutton?

While we considered whether or not to intercede, the Urchin seemed to attempt a clumsy escape, or perhaps he simply swooned, either way taking a bad tumble where we thought it best to let him recover himself. Fatty Fish skipped around on the rocks above and seemed to have forgotten what he’d been eating.

Over the span of an afternoon, the Urchin appeared to recover himself somewhat, bracing himself against one of the glass walls with his tiny white feet and executing half of a turn, but not a full one, which was still cause for concern as his underbelly and mouth were exposed and facing inward to the aquarium.

Fatty Fish rediscovered him at some point. He flitted around the bottom of the Urchin, seemingly innocent, sitting on the rock beside the Urchin and looking out, and then putting his face between the spines for a second to dash away playfully. I couldn’t tell if he was eating the Urchin or just hanging out.

A little research about Greenbanded Gobies turned up this reassuring note:

“In nature (the greenbanded goby) secretively lives underneath sea urchins just below the tidal zone, using the spiny critters for protection against predators.”

An unexpected symbiotic relationship! I knew sweet Fatty Fish couldn’t really be eating the Urchin: Fatty Fish found his friend!

The Urchin, though unwell, tolerated Fatty Fish. The Urchin was still trying to get his bearings, lifting himself off the rocks but still supporting himself on the glass. A snail blundered into the mess of white feet and became snared for a while, the confused Urchin mistaking the snail for a rock or perhaps trying to pry it loose to “decorate” and camouflage himself. Fatty Fish remained at his side throughout beaming cheer and support.

Unfortunately, a hermit crab came along and found a soft and slightly damaged side to the Urchin and began to pick at him. The Urchin reacted slowly in sick confusion. Fatty Fish tried to repel the crab, but his tiny mouth was ineffectual against the crab’s exoskeleton. I attempted to separate the hermit crab and the Urchin, but after a time the carrion snails started coming out of the ground, meaning the smell of sickness was spreading.

We put the Urchin in an isolation box in the corner with a rock covered in algae for him to munch on if he should gain the strength to eat. The snails crawled over the top and sides of the box, looking for a way to get in.

Imagine there you are in your hospital room, all bandaged up and sitting there with the tv clicker, panning through listless programs while you try to heal up. Meanwhile hungry zombies are moaning outside and banging on the locked door and windows.

I think that’s maybe how the Urchin felt.

Once the snails had given up, Fatty Fish went to keep the Urchin company, sitting on the lid of the isolation box.

The Urchin wasn’t recovering, the decay was spreading down his injured side, and we had to discuss the most humane way to dispose of him. Should we open the box and let nature take its course, let the snails do what they do?

Back to the zombie/hospital room analogy: Imagine the hospital doctors announcing over the loud speakers into the room, “Sorry, looks like you’re not going to get better.” The door to the room then opens, allowing the zombies to flood in. Just before you are eaten, you’re permitted a moment of indignant outrage, “What the hell??”

However, the Urchin was clearly dead now, having lost a great deal of his needles, and none of his feet or spines were moving anymore. He had probably been sick before we put in him the aquarium in the first place.

Sad day, sad Fatty Fish.

Fatty Fish resumed his daily routine of frolicking among the rocks, imposing upon other fish, and eating his oversized portions of comfort foods, though with a heart slightly heavier.

Well we couldn’t let it end like that, so we had to get him another Urchin. This one is smaller and quicker on his feet. And Fatty Fish is over the moon.

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