Sunday, June 9, 2013

Portraits of Red-Spotted Sunfish: Dexter and St. John

I currently have more fish than my place of employment.

How is that possible, you ask?

I have a native Florida freshwater fish tank.  It's 75 gallons of non-stop drama and cuteness.  You may think it's weird to ascribe "cute" as an adjective to a fish, so I thought I'd write this blog post about them to educate you.  I've got six of these glorious Florida panfish, and today we will talk about the red-spotted sunfish Lepomis miniatus*.  And yesterday, they spawned.  For the third time.

The subjects of this blog are named Dexter (the boy) and St. John (the girl, obviously).  They were so christened because I liked the idea of having a Florida bodies-of-water-themed fish tank**.  They were collected from a roadside park that allowed fishing using a teeny tiny hook and lots and lots of bread balls. 

"Bread balls?" you may ask.  "Fish don't eat bread balls!"

WRONG.  It is a commonly accepted zoological fact that red-spotted sunfish eat anything with mass.

Hence, it didn't take long before Dexter and St. John came into my life, as well as a male bluegill I named Homosassa.  

Homosassa on the left, St. John on the right

While I could tell Dexter and St. John apart as individuals, they weren't large enough to be sexually dimorphic.  Everything I'd read about red spotted sunfish gave very vague descriptions of gender differences.   Here are some of the things I read:

"The lower two-thirds of a male’s body has reddish-orange dots arranged one to a scale. Female’s spots are confined mostly to the belly and are lighter in color. The colorful spots on the male give it a brick-red appearance at first glance. Females are more dominated by a dark-green body color, similar to that on the backs of males."

"Females may have stripes."

I'd kind of like to see the aforementioned authors describe differences in human males and females:  

"The lower two-thirds of the male's body has two legs.  Female legs are shapelier, unless they have eaten too many gummy worms for years at time.  Males have shorter hair, although some females can too."

"Females have fingernails." 

Okay, maybe I'm too cynical.  Well, let me just tell you that Dexter did not appear brick red.  Both fish had spots on each scale.  And both of them had light stripes.   So I named them boyish names knowing that, possibly, one or both could turn out to be female.  Eventually, when Dexter started acting frisky, that's when I knew he was a dude.

Let's talk about Dexter.  He is definitely the biggest jerk in the tank.  Don't get me wrong, I love him.   But I'd never want to to date him, or work with him, or stand next in line to him at Starbucks.  

If Dexter were a human being, he'd be the guy that wears obnoxiously expensive clothing that he spent seven hours ironing.  He speaks with an affected, made-up quasi-British accent to prove his high level of education.  He treats people in the service industry like they are slugs (side note: Dexter loves to eat slugs).  The only time he talks to anyone else is when he wants something from them, and he usually condescends to them.  But because he is just so attractive, everyone wants to be his friend.  And because he really thinks his superior genes should be expressed in great numbers in the next generation, he fathers a lot of children.  He prepares his lavish abode for hours in anticipation of his children.  He tries to be Father of The Year, and judges other parents for their comparatively poor parenting skills.  Then he realizes his kids'  care eats into his Me Time, so he eats them (maybe this is where the comparison ends?).  

This is the kind of fish who'd order a triple vent sugar free, non-fat, no foam, extra caramel with whip caramel macchiato, the pour regular coffee down the side and two and a half slugs on the side.   

Then there's poor, sweet St. John.  She has an unfortunate name and is a mild, tender little fish.  She spends most of her days looking at interesting things outside of her tank.  Sometimes she watches snails crawl around.   She eats everything she sees, but I've never once seen her attack another fish for her space or food.  

Look at that sweet face!  She was really interested in my phone, as you can see.

I imagine the first time she fell in love with Dexter, she felt like she'd really landed a keeper.  He spent a couple of days fanning out a spawning nest for her, and kept all of the other fish away.  When the time came for them to consummate their relationship, this is the conversation that likely ensued:

Dexter: Hello, Female Fish of Interest.  It is time for you to lay your eggs for beautiful, perfect me.
St. John:  I always knew this day would come, when I'd find the man of my dreams and have children with him.
Dexter: You're the only fish in this tank for me
St. John: Oh, Dexter! You're so thoughtful
Dexter: What? I was talking to myself
St. John: That hurt my feelings
Dexter: You have feelings?
Rated M for Mature

After some ham-handed (finned?) courtship, St. John laid her eggs and was rudely chased away by Dexter.  For days, Dexter claimed over half of his roomy 75 gallon tank to himself.  The other panfish stayed away.  Only St. John occasionally tried to visit her only love.  

St. John: Oh Dexter, I know we are meant to be together!
Dexter: STAY AWAY FISHFACE!!!!!!!!!!!!! 
Side note: Sometimes I wonder if fish would be more compassionate towards each other if they had facial expressions instead of using body color to communicate emotional and reproductive states. 

The Many Faces of St. John




Anyways, I digrees.

Eventually, about 9 zillion baby sunfish hatched and hovered motionlessly in every part of the water column.  Dexter spent about five days guarding them from the Perils of the Universe, and then ate them.

He's repeated this cycle now three times; his last batch of children hatched yesterday.   The tiny, tadpole-like spotted sunfish infants float eerily about the tank.  They sit on one of the submerged clay pots in their father's territory, watching his every move.  I'm pretty sure they stare at him all day and say, "Hey dad, hey dad, dad, dad, dad, hey dad" until one day it drives him insane and he eats them.

Dexter again, hogging the camera.  I was trying to get a shot of the babies (you can see them in the background).

When Dexter and St. John are childless again, Dexter will allow the other fish to swim over to his side. But his life philosophy remains unchanged: I'm owed all the food, all the ladies, all the glory.

* Latin for "Gigantic personalities stuffed into tiny bodies"

** I think that bumps me up to Nerd Level 19,000

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