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Parrotfish Have Been Caught ‘Farming’ Coral Reefs

First, they poop out white sand beaches, now this …

Parrotfish like this one may be the farmers of the sea.
Parrotfish like this one may be the farmers of the sea. Ratha Grimes/CC BY 2.0

Octopus gardens get all the attention from songwriters, but maybe it’s time someone wrote a ditty about parrotfish algae farms. According to new research, the fascinating fish—also responsible for pooping out Hawaii’s white-sand beaches—actually “farms” its food in coral reefs.

A pair of research papers have stated that some species of parrotfish, colorful creatures with fused teeth that form a bird-like beak, revisit the same feeding spots at regular intervals, according to a story on Futurity. Like farmers on land, they seem to spread out their feedings in such a way that new crops of algae can grow in their favored spots, and even go so far as to defend the spots from other sea creatures that might try to steal a crop before its harvest time.

The studies also took note of the movement and concentration of the fish around the Palmyra Atoll, some 1,000 miles from Hawaii, and noticed that while the fish tend to range pretty widely, they return to their feeding spots in deliberate patterns, which supports the idea that their behavior resembles farming.

As an added benefit for the reef, in addition to keeping it clean of algae, the parrotfish also create little divots with their beaks that allow for young corals to sprout. In their way, they are also tending to the coral reef as a whole.

Between their vivid colors, strange tooth-beaks, sand-poop, and now an undersea green thumb, parrotfish are turning out to be one of the most incredible stars of the reef realm.