A Lesson From Hitchhiking Palythoas

One of my favorite moments in the novel Jurassic Park is where the scientists discover the “all female” dinosaur population is breeding. (Note: the scene isn’t in the movie, and it’s worth reading the novel to know the difference.)

I’ve had several similar moments in my eighteen months as a reef-keeper. I’m frequently finding things in the tank that I didn’t (intentionally) put in there. Most are good. Some are not. And sometimes it takes months to tell the difference.

Case in point: hitchhiking palythoas.

When I set up my aquarium in December 2011 I added about 70 pounds of live rock. One of the rocks had a little cluster of brownish polyps growing along the bottom edge.

I didn’t worry much about them at first. My aquarium wasn’t “cycled,” meaning it lacked the beneficial bacterial cultures that break down waste into harmless by-products, allowing more complex creatures to survive. My custom light fixture hadn’t come in, so  photosynthetic corals like zoanthids and palythoas wouldn’t survive. I didn’t like knowing the coral would die, but I had no way to save it so I accepted the inevitable.

As it happened, the polyps didn’t get the memo.

Within a couple weeks two more sprouted directly from the rock. They didn’t thrive but they didn’t melt away either.

When the light fixture finally arrived (two months overdue, and three months after I set up the tank) I wondered how it would impact this hardy little coral that wouldn’t give up. I had grown attached to the polyps (as I am to just about anything that shows that kind of tenacity under hardship).

But the tank could not continue without lighting, so I turned the fixture on and prepared to accept the consequences.

The polyps thrived.

Those tiny, determined palythoas are now a cluster of healthy long-tentacled polyps.

They took on a vibrant green color that draws the eye – a coloration they couldn’t achieve in the absence of adequate light.

They also provided a curious lesson in change. Part of me feared turning on the fixture in case the change would kill the hitchhiker coral. I’d done my research and actually knew the light should help them grow, but I was afraid of hurting the polyps by causing change.

Yet without that change, they never could have reached their full potential. Eventually they would have withered and died.

That’s a lesson for more than corals. It’s one a reef-keeping author would do well to internalize. Change is frightening, and different, but it also gives us all an opportunity to grow and allow our own true colors to develop. We may survive in the darkness, but it’s only when we allow ourselves – and our works – to emerge into the light that we discover the potential that lies inside us.

2 thoughts on “A Lesson From Hitchhiking Palythoas

  • July 18, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    Hi Susan, live tanks and hitchhiking coral sound like a underwater sea adventure that changes in direct light. The unseen being seen will eventually be uncovered to expose the beauty that lies inside. Sea writing does that, I’m glad the coral adapted. How are the seahorses?

    • July 19, 2012 at 11:57 am

      Hi Sandy,

      The seahorses are doing great – actually, they were “dancing” this morning which means they’re getting ready to mate. The reef experience definitely changes with the lighting – I have my tank set up to approximate full daylight for part of the day and “twilight” (30% light) for another part, so I can watch the corals in all their phases. I even sneak in after lights’ out to watch the reef at night with a flashlight – it’s amazing how it changes throughout the day!

Comments are closed.