We found algae-farming fish that domesticate tiny shrimp to help run their farms



Longfin damselfish (left) have domesticated mysid shrimps (right).
Rohan Brooker, Author provided

William Feeney, Griffith University and Rohan Brooker, Deakin University

Humans are experts at domesticating other species and our world would be unrecognisable without it. There would be no cities, no supermarkets, and no pets. Domestication is a special kind of cooperative relationship, where one species provides prolonged support in exchange for a predictable resource.

While humans have domesticated various plants and animals, these relationships are surprisingly rare in other species. It’s true some insects (ants, beetles, and termites among them) domesticate fungi, but few other examples exist outside the insect world.

In our new study, we describe what appears to be first example of a non-human vertebrate domesticating another animal.

Reef in Belize
On the coral reefs off the coast of Belize, in Central America, longfin damselfish create, manage and feed from algae farms.
By Andy Blackledge – P4120130, CC BY 2.0, CC BY



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Farming fish domesticate shrimps

On the coral reefs off the coast of Belize, in Central America, longfin damselfish create, manage and feed from algae farms. We noticed they regularly have “swarms” of tiny crustaceans called mysid shrimps floating above their farms.

We found this unusual, as most farming damselfishes chase away anything that ventures near their farm. We were unsure why these species associated with one another, so we decided to try to find out what was going on.

First, to see whether mysid shrimps and farming damselfish are regularly found together, we ran a series of what’s known as “transects”. In other words, we conducted a series of 30 metre swims along the reef, and during each one we recorded each time we saw mysid shrimps, as well as whether they were near farming damselfish or other fish species.

We found these mysids were far more likely to be found near farming species, like the longfin damselfish, than other species.

The Smithsonian’s Carrie Bow Cay Marine Research Station off the coast of Belize.
Rohan Brooker

Next, we wanted to know if the mysids specifically seek out their damselfish partners.

So, we collected mysid shrimps from the field, brought them into the lab and exposed the mysids to water soaked with different things. For example, do they avoid the smell of a predator? Are they attracted to the smell of a farming damselfish?

We found the mysids shrimps were attracted to the longfin damselfish, repulsed by a predator and indifferent towards a non-farming fish — and to the farm itself.

I help you, you help me

Many fish eat mysid shrimps, so we ran an experiment to see if longfin damselfish provided protection to the mysids when they are in the fish’s farm.

To do this, we placed mysid shrimps in a clear plastic bag and placed the bag either inside or outside a farm.

We found that when placed outside a farm, other fish tried to eat the mysid shrimps. When inside the farms, any fish that tried to come close to the bag was chased off by the longfin damselfish. This suggested the mysids seek out longfin damselfish, as they provide mysids with protection from predators.

Slippery Dick Wrasse is a common predator of shrimps.
Slippery Dick Wrasse is a common predator of mysid shrimps.
Brian Gratwicke/Flickr, CC BY

One question remained: do the mysid shrimps provide a benefit to the longfin damselfish?

Given the damselfish eat the algae they farm, we thought maybe by hovering above the farm, the mysid shrimps waste might act as fertiliser.

To test this, we examined the quality of the algae within farms that did, or did not have mysid shrimps. We also examined the body condition of fish that did, or did not, have mysid shrimps within their farms.

We found farms with shrimps had higher quality algae, and fish from farms with mysid shrimps were in better condition.

Insight into how domestication happens

These different analyses together suggest longfin damselfish have domesticated mysid shrimps. The longfin damselfish provide a safe refuge, and in exchange the mysid shrimps provide the damselfish with fertiliser for its farm.

This relationship is important, because while fantastic research has provided insight into the history of domestication in our ancestors, these things happened in the distant past.

In the longfin damselfish, we can watch the early stages of domestication occur as it’s happening.

This is fascinating because it’s very similar to the proposed series of events that led to our domestication of species such as chickens, cats, dogs and pigs.




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The Conversation


William Feeney, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Evolutionary Ecology, Griffith University and Rohan Brooker, Casual Research Fellow, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Tasmanian devils look set to conquer their own pandemic



Alecia Carter, Author provided

Hamish McCallum, Griffith University and Austin H. Patton, University of California, Berkeley

In the midst of a human pandemic, we have some good news about a wildlife one: our new research, published today in Science, shows Tasmanian devils are likely to survive despite the infectious cancer that has ravaged their populations.

Tasmanian devils have been devastated by a bizarre transmissible cancer. Devil facial tumour disease, or DFTD for short, was first detected in 1996 in northeast Tasmania. Transmitted via biting, DFTD has spread over almost the entire state, reaching the west coast in the past two or three years. It has led to a decline of at least 80% in the total devil population.

Tasmanian devil with facial tumour
The infectious tumours are spread by biting.
CREDIT, Author provided

Ten years ago, we thought there was a real chance DFTD would drive the Tasmanian devil to extinction. Our concern arose not just because the cancer was almost inevitably lethal, but also because the transmission rate did not appear to slow down, even as devils became very rare.

Our new research has some good news: by pioneering application of genomic analysis typically used for viruses, we have discovered the curve has flattened and the rate of increase of infections has slowed. This means while the disease is probably not going away, neither are Tasmanian devils.

Genomics is a relatively new field of science that uses the vast amounts of data available from modern genetic sequencing techniques to answer some of the most difficult and important questions in biology.




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The genomic approach we used is called phylodynamics. It uses sophisticated mathematical analysis of small changes in DNA to reconstruct the evolution and spread of the tumour through devil populations. This is the same method used to track the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was first developed to study the influenza virus. Viruses have small genomes and evolve rapidly. This is the first time the method has been used for a pathogen with a much more complex and slowly evolving genome.

Screening more than 11,000 genes, we found the R number (the average number of secondary cases for each primary case, now familiar from COVID-19) has fallen from about 3.5 at the peak of the epidemic to about one now. This suggests some sort of steady state has been reached, and the disease and devils are now coexisting.

Reproduction number RE of DFTD from 1990 to the present.
Reproduction number RE of DFTD from 1990 to the present.
CREDIT, Author provided

This discovery backs up a paper we published last year, in which we reached a similar conclusion using mathematical models based on marking and recapturing Tasmanian devils at a single study site, without taking genetics into account.

Our new study is based on samples collected across Tasmania since the early 2000s. Given the very different nature of the two methods, the agreement between the results lends us increased confidence in our conclusions.

This paper, in addition to several we have published recently, shows there have been rapid evolutionary changes in Tasmanian devils and in the tumours themselves since the emergence of this transmissible cancer. Already, frequencies of gene variants known to be associated with immune function in humans have increased in Tasmanian devil populations, suggesting the devils are evolving and adapting to the threat.

We also now know a relatively small number of genes has a large influence on whether devils become infected, and whether they survive if they do.

Finally, and perhaps most encouragingly of all, we have now seen tumours shrink and disappear — something that was unheard of when the disease first emerged. What’s more, we also know this has a strong genetic basis, again suggesting the devils are genetically adapting to their foe.

Together, all of these discoveries show wild Tasmanian devils can evolve very rapidly — over just five generations or so — in response to this disease. This has profoundly encouraging implications for their likely future survival.

Baby Tasmanian devil
Tasmanian devils now have much better genetic defences against the disease.
Rodrigo Hamede, Author provided

There is still much more to learn about the evolution of the devils and their tumours. But meanwhile, our results provide a warning that a strategy of reintroducing captive-reared animals to supplement diseased wild devil populations is likely to be counterproductive.

When devils from populations that have never been exposed to the disease interbreed with wild animals in diseased populations, the evolution we have seen in wild populations is likely to slow down or even reverse, endangering those populations.

What’s more, the slowing rate of disease transmission may be partly a consequence of reduced devil population densities, resulting in fewer bites. Artificially boosting population densities might accelerate disease transmission, the opposite of the intended effect.




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With the growing body of evidence showing extinction of devils is quite unlikely even over the next 100 years, we have time for careful consideration of management strategies. Specifically, models can be developed to assess the evolutionary and epidemiological consequences of reintroductions or translocations.

One possibility would be to captively breed devils that have the right genes to boost their chance of surviving the disease. More broadly, our research underlines the vital importance of taking evolutionary considerations into account when managing endangered species. We now have the genomic tools to do so.


Many thanks to Andrew Storfer at Washington State University, Menna Jones and Rodrigo Hamede at the University of Tasmania, and Paul Hohenlohe at the University of Idaho for their contributions to this article and the research it describes.The Conversation

Hamish McCallum, Professor, Griffith School of Environment and Science, Griffith University and Austin H. Patton, Postdoctoral Associate, University of California, Berkeley

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.