Better not mess with the damselfish

A damselfish protects its turf on Davis Reef.
A damselfish protects its turf on Davis Reef.

I slowly was cruising along 25 feet underwater next to Davis Reef, which lays a short boat ride off Key Largo.

Then, it happened.

The attack, which came out of my blind side, was swift, direct and merciless.

Now, some of you have already conjured up visions of sharks, barracuda or some other fearsome creatures from the deep.

But, my attacker was not the type of scary denizen of the sea that makes the 6 p.m. TV news after it mauls a hapless soul who ventured into its underwater turf.

No well-coiffured reporter was called to breathlessly give the gory details of the assault over endlessly played “B” roll footage of an ambulance hauling me away while onlookers speculated as to what had occurred.

My wound was merely a buzzing sensation — sort of like that made by the old practical joke hand buzzers.

My attacker was a 3-inch brown and cream colored damselfish who was merely defending its territory.

I jerked back the stricken hand, identified the culprit, and thought, “that damselfish ain’t no lady.” (OK, for you English majors I know my thought contained a double negative and improper vernacular contraction, but I was surprised. Cut me some slack.)

Many scuba divers who visit the Keys are looking for a critter to take a photo of and then regale the folks back home with a story about how and when the image was taken.

Most divers tend to ignore damselfish. But, those who take the time to study the aggressive little fish find them very entertaining.

There are more than 250 saltwater damselfish. Most are in the scientific classification Pomacentridae that inhabit warm tropical seas of the Atlantic and indo-Pacific oceans. Some damsels live in lower stretches of fresh water rivers.

Damselfish can be found in shallow coral reefs, sea grass, and sheltered mangroves. A few deep-water species live at depths at 300 feet or below.

One subspecies of damselfish is the clownfish, or anemonefish, made famous by the shy and well-mannered Nemo who starred in the 2003 Disney film Finding Nemo. Although most damselfishes live along reefs, certain species, the anemone fish, like Nemo, live among the stinging tentacles of sea anemones for protection and to capture prey.

Another famous damselfish is the garibaldi, which California designated the official state marine fish in 1995.

Certain damselfish, like California’s garibaldi, grow to 14 inches. Most are smaller, averaging about 4 inches.

Many damselfish are very territorial and demonstrate — like the fellow that attacked me — very aggressive behavior when defending their territory or nest.

One cool fact about damselfish is that, according to Ulrike Siebeck of the University of Queensland in Australia, they can distinguish other fish by looking at the ultraviolet patterns on their faces.

In 1962 the Motown musical group the Contours came out with a song about how a young man found love by learning to dance.

They sang: “Do you love me? Do you love me, baby? Now do you love me? Do you love me now that I can dance? Watch me, now!”

Well, male damselfish know how to dance to get the lady damselfish. They attract egg-depositing females to their nest by flirtatiously jetting up and down.

Some types of damselfish are sweet talkers. They make a clicking or purring noises during the courtship season, which is usually from spring to summer. Reef-dwelling damselfishes usually spawn in the morning and seem to increase spawning at full and new moons.

After the courtship and honeymoon is over the male becomes the stay-at-home fish, taking on the role of egg tending (removing detritus, sand, and fungus afflicted eggs, fanning the eggs to oxygenate them, and guarding against predators). This can be a chore. Females lay up to 20,000 eggs.

One type of damselfish, the anemonefish (Nemo) have toned down dance moves. They also form permanent monogamous relationships.

Damselfish exhibit sequential hermaphroditism; they can change genders — protandrous (males change to females) or protogynous (females change to males).

Fish identification of the juvenile species is easier because the young are often brilliantly colored — often with spots. Older damsels become less colorful.

Many damselfish mature in about three years.

Damselfishes are largely plant eaters that tend “gardens” of algae. Some, like our friend the anemone fish Nemo, may eat tiny invertebrates (no backbone).

Damselfish live about six to eight years. Biologists say some species may live 10 to 12 years in the wild and 18 years in captivity.

Because many damsels are small and colorful they are popular for personal aquariums.

“Despite their overall popularity, different species also have distinctive behaviors and social traits. Some have bad reputations, and deservedly so, as little terrors that are dominating the tank! Though some species make good additions to most aquariums, there are many of these fish that can be absolutely nasty towards their tank -mates.”( http://animal-world.com/encyclo/marine/damsels/damsels.php)

Scientists have differing opinions regarding damselfish. Some want to protect certain types, other aren’t so sure noting that damselfish may be causing destruction to some of the worlds reefs.

According to a story on National Public Radio (NPR) about damselfish in Bonaire, damselfish may be harmful to reefs.” (See: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111743524)

"Damselfish are these little fish and what they do is they make little yards on the bottom of the reef," says marine biologist Mark Vermeij. “These yards — or pastures, you could call them — are patches of algae that the fish actually farm right on the coral.”

"And in order to make a place for one of these yards, they basically kill the coral," Vermeij says. "So they go to the coral, they start sucking on little polyps until they die. And then when that happens, little algae establish on that died-off patch."

"They're little feisty guys," Vermeij says. "There are rainbow parrot fish, almost a meter long, and this damselfish that's not much bigger than a goldfish just comes out. This parrotfish is aiming at feeding in that guy's little meadow. And the little damselfish just comes out and scares that thing away. They're aggressive as hell."

"Twenty years ago, life on these reefs for little fish was basically annoying. Because there were all these big fish around that would eat you if you weren't paying attention. And then because a lot of people took the big fish out, it's a much safer environment for these little fish," Vermeij says.

On the other side of the globe, in Hawaii, efforts to protect clownfish, like nemo, as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act have not been successful. (See http://www.fpir.noaa.gov/Library/PRD/reef_fish/NOAA_Tech_Memo_PIFSC_52.pdf)

The next time you are diving, slow down and look for damselfish. You might just see one guarding the Buddha statue at Davis Reef. But, be careful where you put your hands.

For more on damselfish go to: http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Pomacentridae/

For a listing of damselfish see: http://animal-world.com/encyclo/marine/damsels/damsels.php

Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 30 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier five years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers. He can be reached at donrrhodes@gmail.com.