Friday, July 6, 2012

The Irreversibility of Domestication - The Case of the Aquarium

The Irreversibility of Domestication - The Case of the Aquarium
Dr Abe V Rotor
Pako fish in home aquarium

Pets, pets, pets. Only humans make pets. It is an expression of rationality, demonstrating custodianship of God's creation, extension of familial instinct, and a means of silencing frayed nerves, and exit of pent up emotion and outburst of energy. Above all pets share the burden of living, provide companionship, and reciprocated love in many ways. But what is the implication of domestication of living things to ecology, and to the living world as a whole?

The Aquarium

The aquarium is a minuscule of a pond; the pond, the minuscule of the lake or ocean.
The home aquarium is a representation of God's vast creation - 78 percent of the surface of the earth covered with water, water interconnecting all oceans and seas from pole to pole, across the equator and meeting the great rivers at the bays and estuaries.

Here is an experiment I conducted at home with a home aquarium. I reared two oscars and two pako fish, a relative of the notorious Piranha, in our long idle aquarium that has volume of some 100 gallons. It is huge for four small fishes. But that's freedom, I thought, thinking of their natural habitat. The freer the fishes are, the more they find food and mate, and easier to adjust to changing conditions.

Aquariums are like a stage where drama is shown - the colors, movements, behaviors of the characters; their interaction within and imagined scenery at the other side of the glass. To us viewers we see but the fish; to the fish they see us and all around us. In fact the whole landscape is part of the fish's dwelling, giving them a false sense of freedom.

Luckier are the fish though than convicts behind bars, or within thick walls with just a peep window. And while the convict is closed in, we wish our fish in the aquarium to "open up" by coming close to the glass wall so that we can communicate with them and they communicate with us.

The oscars died and left the pako to occupy the whole aquarium. Soon they grew big, so big that they had to be transferred to a garden pond. They did not last long. They did not get adapted to open condition. Acid rain, low dissolved oxygen level, among other factors were too much for them to bear.

In another aquarium I placed six paco fingerlings occupied by a lone oscar three times the size of the pako. They grew fast and overtook the lone Oscar. It too, died. And the pako, even if they had apparently adjusted, succumb to the long hot summer. Like birds, fish live in groups. They have their niche, they travel, even migrate, seeking the best conditions favorable to them. Thus the saying, "Birds of the same feather flock together." So with fish, fish of the same kind make a school.

There are of course interactions between and among flocks or schools in the natural environment - but not in an artificial one. In fact, one test of an ecosystem's balance and integrity is when the food web that comprises it has attained self-regulation and control, and what scientists call homeostasis which means dynamic stability for a period of time.

Take the coral reef, for instance. It is a model of symbiotic relationship of different organisms. Coelenterates (corals) and algae live together, so with seaweeds and a host of feeders and symbionts; sea grass and echinoderms (starfish and sea urchin) with benthic (bottom) dwellers, and pelagic (free swimming) fish, among many other organisms, including those unseen by the naked eye - they comprise the coral reef, the most beautiful underwater scenery we attempt to recreate in the laboratory or in our sala through an aquarium.

I know of one built by a former student of mine at UST. It simulates the coral reef. There are even sea anemones that react to light and to touch to the delight of viewers. There are mollusks, both with shells and naked like the octopus. Yes, the octopus, known for being canny we interpret as intelligence, by changing colors and patterns with their environment, their eyes closest in appearance to the eyes of humans in shape and expression(?).

But octopuses are no easy aquarium pets. I can attest to that.

In San Fernando, La Union, where I was assigned in government service for two years, I caught a small octopus which I intended to make as pet. It was a pet all right while you are watching it. Once you turn your back, it creeps out of the aquarium in an attempt to escape. It has indeed a keen sense of smell of the sea - it crept always to the west - the South China Sea where I was living nearby. My octopus deserved freedom. I gave in with a sigh, gaining a lesson in biology, and put it back to sea.

I wonder how many organisms presently under the care of man will not get acclimatized once they are transferred to the wild, which is their native home. This is the irony of domestication.~

Do Fish Ever Sleep?

Dr Abe V Rotor

Fish, pastel drawing by Angelica Mijares, then 9 years old
Summer Art Workshop for Children, SPUQC, circa 2001

Once I wondered if ever fish sleep,
    Unless by sleep they remain still
In some quiet pool, like the cows and sheep,
    After their fill lie on a grassy hill.
Could either, I ask, bring about man’s ease
    And cease his mind to wonder and wander?
And where is that pool or that hill at peace,
   Save Flanders, or some place ever after?