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Arriving on a morning tide from an offshore current a single larvae of the surf anemone Anthopleura elegantissimasettled on a rock next to a massive plate coral about thirty yards out from the white sand shore of an island beach. It was a good rock. It was exposed by high tide but for no longer than two hours at a time, which both the plate coral and the anemone could easily survive, and large enough to withstand the breakers of the occasional hurricane. The anemone would settle here. The location was Rio Bueno on the north coast of Jamaica, and the year was 1902.
The anemone developed rapidly and soon had constructed an armor-like coating of shell fragments to protect its soft body from the desiccating sun. It had started feeding as soon as it had attached, on tiny copepods and algae fragments mostly, and was pleasantly surprised at the abundance of such food. It scarcely needed the microscopic symbiotic dinoflagellates that were taking up residence in its growing tentacles, preparing to photosynthesize in the bright tropical light and share the energy with the anemone. It was a fertile beach. In all directions the anemone could see corals of bewildering variety: branching elkhorns and staghorns, encrusting and foliose corals, and massive Montastreas plate corals like the one next to the rock it had settled on. As well as the corals there were countless kinds of other sessile and bottom-dwelling life: snails, mussels, barnacles, sea stars, crabs, spiny Diadema urchins, but not, on this rock at least, another Anthopleura anemone. That suited the anemone just fine. It had reached the rock first, and the rock was an open expanse of promise.
The anemone spent the first few years of settled life building up its strength and testing the various foods to be found in the water that passed its anchorage. While it was still just a tiny bud, plankton and drifting detritus suited it just fine, but as it grew, so did its hunger, and it was a happy accident when a shore crab lost its balance when a wave struck the coral and tumbled into the anemone's tentacles. Then it learned the power of its paralyzing nematocysts and the potency of its digestion: the shore crab was nothing but empty shell within ten minutes. After that it tried and liked everything that came within reach: chitons, snails, even small fish and shrimp.
One day, a new fish passed close by the anemone's roost. It was small but brightly striped with blue and orange and looked extremely appetizing. The anemone waved its pink-green tentacles in imitation of some nearby staghorn seaweed, and when the browsing fish drifted within its range, attempted to drag it in.
Something was wrong. It could feel the fish, which was fully within the anemone's disc, but there was no trill of stinging nematocysts and no answering rumble of the stomach. The fish glided through the anemone's tentacles as though they were mere seaweed and was gone.
"Hey," called the anemone. "How did you do that?"
"I'm an anemone fish," the departing fish called back. "An Amphiprion. I'm immune to your venom. I'm a little out of your league, young anemone."
The next time the Amphiprion came by, the anemone struck up a conversation, and learned that the fish was friendly and inclined to be voluble. It told the anemone about the splendid fish of the reef, wrasses, angelfish, surgeonfish; the giant predators such as sharks, snappers, jacks, triggerfish and groupers, and the mysterious turtles and manatees. The anemone had seen these enormous shapes drifting past at high tide and, pleased as he was to know what they were, was more pleased to learn that they did not consider him food. The Amphiprion departed with a promise to keep him up to date on any news that might concern him.
The news came on a warm morning in 1912. The Amphiprion seemed amused when it came by to talk, and said: "A funny thing just happened. I was telling the other anemone about the black canoes, and it took me some time to realize that it wasn't you at all. I got confused."
"Other anemone? What other anemone?"
"I suppose you've never met. There's an anemone on the sheltered side of this rock that looks just like you."
"Another anemone? An Anthopleura elegantissima? On this rock?"
"Are you sure it's just like me? Sometimes anemones look alike."
"No, it's an Anthopleura all right. I suppose I know what one looks like as well as anyone, being an anemone fish. Green and pink, your size and shape, harmless. Why, what does it matter? It's way over the other side of the rock, if it's territory you're thinking of. Anyway, let me tell you about the black canoesŠ"
The anemone half listened while the Amphiprion talked about the black canoes, of which there seemed to be more and more every day, and the strange traps they laid on the ocean floor for bigger fish. When the Amphiprion was gone, the anemone thought to itself for a long time.
"There's nothing for it," it decided at last. "I can't handle this alone."
For a day the anemone concentrated on a miracle of transformation that, now he was doing it, he had always know he was capable of. Slowly he developed a line across the circumference of his disk, a dimple, a fissure, and when the sun rose on the second day there was another anemone next to him.
"Hello," it said. "Who am I?"
"You're an Anthopleura elegantissima anemone, and you're a clone of me. I'm the original, and I've been here the longest, so you'll do what I say, all right?"
"Of course," said the clone. "That goes without saying."
"That's good," said the anemone. "Then let me explain why I've created you. This rock is our territory, and has always been our territory since I settled here. Now it's threatened. An Anthopleura has settled on the other side of this rock, and we need to claim our territory back by fission as soon as we can."
"But," said the clone, "if it's an Anthopleura that is taking up our space, what good is making more Anthopleura to displace it? That doesn't make sense."
"It's an Anthopleura of a different genotype. You and I are genetically identical. It is completely different and foreign to us. Do you understand now?"
"I understand. What should I do?"
"We'll both feed and grow as fast as we can and undergo fission whenever we're big enough. Our tactic is to colonize this rock, until there isn't an inch left where the enemy can get a hold. The enemy has taken root on the sheltered side, so it will receive less food from wave action than our army. It won't be a difficult battle I estimate no more than fifteen years or so. Oh, and you can start calling me Śsir.'"
"Sir, yes, sir," said the clone.
It took more than twenty years, but eventually the rock was covered on all sides by the opposing armies of anemones, each struggling to get a decisive advantage over the other. Where the two lines met the anemones developed special knoblike acrorhagi, blunt arms loaded with nematocysts, to club and sting their opponents. This resulted in a clear no-man's-land stripe all around the rock, which neither army could ever fully occupy. Meanwhile, hurricanes came and went, the black canoes took the plentiful fish from the waters, and the buildings of men spread along the shoreline thirty yards distant. The leader of the original anemones, who had taken to calling himself a general, was well satisfied. His troops of identical clones out-numbered the opposing army three to two and were inflicting heavy losses. The occasional predatory attack of a sea star was all he had to worry about. A large white nudibranch, a strange feathery crawling creature, had come nosing around the rock some weeks past, but after encountering a few swift stinging tentacles had advanced no further. Neither had it retreated, which was odd, but not a cause for alarm. The anemone truly felt lord of all he surveyed.
"Has there ever been an army like this?" he said wonderingly.
Pride came before the setback. Early in the new year of 1938 the nudibranch made its move. It advanced from where it had been building up a slow immunity to the venom of the anemone army and laid waste to numerous troops on both sides at the base of the rock where the water was deepest. Word reached the first anemone that the enemy was proposing a temporary truce while they decided how best to deal with this external threat.
"Truce?" said the anemone in disgust. "Not a chance. Fill the space where the nudibranch damage was highest. See if you can outflank the enemy from underneath."
"But sir, what if the nudibranch comes back?" asked a clone.
"It will," said the anemone. "Of course it will. Now that it has immunity, we are at its mercy. Our only chance is to build up our numbers faster and hope to defeat the enemy by sheer attrition. We have to use this to our advantage. Remember, the nudibranch will die of old age before long, and also that it has predators of its own."
"Brilliant," breathed a clone, and the orders were passed.
Halfway through the century, the huts that lined the shore like clouds on the horizon began to grow in size and stature, and take on a hard-edged appearance that some of the anemones, always alert for new enemies, found threatening. But when they turned to their general, expectant that, as usual, he would know everything, he calmed their fears. "Those constructions," he said, "Are the affairs of men. They grow on the shore like coral, and will never comes into the ocean. They will spread and multiply and grow taller, but they will never be a threat to us."
"But why are they there, sir, and what goes on in them?" asked a new clone.
"That is of no importance. It is a waste of time to wonder. Our thoughts must always be with the rock, with our home and territory, and with our inevitable victory over our foes. Do the stars sing songs? Will the sharks and groupers return to these waters? What kind of wars are fought in the buildings of men? These questions are beyond our needs, and beyond our care. We are anemones, fierce, proud, and dominant over all we survey."
The reef was changing. By 1960 the fishing of the black canoes had been so successful that there were hardly any large fish left, resulting in increased numbers of the small, brightly colored fish that were always willing to talk with an anemone. Balancing this, the quality of the water was not what it had been at the beginning of the century, which caused strange diseases to break out on the skins of the fish. None of this was of much concern to the hardy anemones, who found the water adequate.
In 1980, after four decades without a major storm, Hurricane Allen (category 5) swept in on the north shore of Jamaica and the coast went dark for a day and a night. When the storm abated and the clouds parted, the anemones could hardly believe what they saw. The forest of branching corals that had always surrounded them was completely gone, pulverized by the furious waves. The waters were cloudy with powdered calcium carbonate and displaced coral polyps who drifted helplessly out with the tide, their elaborate homes gone. The bay was now a wasteland. The rubble from the broken coral had been swept up by the surf and had battered the soft, low-lying corals near the shore until they were wrecked too. Storm-stirred clouds of sand were drifting down on the flattest and encrusting corals, smothering their polyps and cutting off their light and food. The destruction was near complete. The rock that the opposing anemone armies inhabited had survived more or less unscathed, being high enough in the water to avoid the worst of the rubble damage, although many anemones had been torn from their purchases by the force of the waves, and the massive plate coral next to them was broken entirely in half. The old anemone general, who thought he had seen everything, could not remember a devastation to equal it. But, he reminded his stunned troops, this could work to their advantage, if only they moved quickly to fill the gaps in the line with fresh clones and took advantage of the quantities of food drifting in the turbulent wake of the storm.
Some of the nearby anemones were looking at him oddly. When he snapped at them, they hurriedly stammered out an excuse.
"I'm sorry, sir," they said. "It's your tentacles."
"My tentacles? What about my tentacles?"
"Well, theyŠ they've gone white, sir."
It was true. The clouded water had stressed the survival capabilities of the symbiotic plankton that gave his tentacles their pink-green color, and, unable to photosynthesize, they had abandoned him for likelier pastures. Now that he looked around, several nearby clones had suffered the same fate or were on the way.
"They'll be back," snarled the general. "There are countless more like them. This may slow us up a little, but remember the enemy has likely suffered similar losses. In fact where are my reports from the front? What's it look like over there?"
But the news was not good. The second-rate, sheltered facing of the rock the opposing Anthopleura army occupied had worked to their advantage, protecting them entirely from wave-born rubble. The general's army looked uncertainly to him for direction.
"We'll hold our line," he said decisively, hiding the qualm he felt at the news.
Over the following months, which stretched out to years, the coral reef began to regenerate. Delicate fan corals and branching staghorns rose from the highest parts of the seafloor where the sedimentation from the storm was the least. Encrusting corals spread over the bare rocks as new recruits arrived from offshore. It was all territory that an anemone would appreciate, reflected the old general, though it was certainly out of his reach, if not his dreams. Then he turned back to the business of restoring his troops and thought no more of the matter until 1983.
It began with a single red alga, of the genus Liagora, that began to overshadow the north end of his rock, cutting off the sun and preventing photosynthesis by the troops on that side. This was of minor concern to the general, until a similar alga took root at the south end and threatened to smother that flank, too. Looking around, the general saw the red algae were growing abundantly as far as he could see, rising up from the seafloor and off rocks, in many cases taller than the tallest corals and growing faster.
The general grew worried. His troops were asking for advice on how to deal with algae while fending off the opposing army and he didn't know what to tell them.
"I've seen it all before," he said, buying time while he thought. "This always happens after a bad hurricane. It's nothing to worry about, just a few lean years. Nothing you can't handle," he added gruffly. But it had never happened before, that he could remember.
Late one night, the general felt the tickle of a grazing Amphiprion moving harmlessly, as always, through the nematocysts of his army. He raised his voice until the Amphiprion came over to see what he wanted.
"You're not the one I know," said the general. "I used to be very good friends with a Amphiprion, back in the twenties or so. You're not him."
"I'm certainly not," said the Amphiprion. "And I'm afraid your friend is long dead. I'm only two years old myself."
"Two years," said the general. "Still a child. Then you never saw this reef before the storm."
"No. But I've heard plenty of tales about it."
"It's difficult to get news, when you're attached to a rock. Perhaps you've heard something about this red algae that is growing everywhere."
"Oh, that. That's because of the Diadema. Didn't you know?"
"The sea urchins? What about them?"
"You must have noticed they all died this year. There's hardly any left at all. They say it's a disease but no one knows where it came from."
"Well, what about it? I'm asking about the red algae."
"That's just it. The Diadema ate the algae and stopped it from taking over the coral. Now they're gone, and the algae can grow all it wants."
"Now listen," said the general. "I may be stuck to this rock, but I know one single species of urchin doesn't keep a forest of algae from growing. I've been here longer than anyone. Fish eat algae too. What are they doing about it?"
"The big fish, the algae eaters, are gone too. I've never even seen them, but I heard the black canoes took them all, before my time. Little fish like me are all that's left."
"So you're saying that the Diadema alone were preventing the algae from overgrowing the coral, without any help?"
"That's right," said the Amphiprion.
"Well, I expect there were survivors, and the survivors will recover their numbers, and things will go back to normal again," said the anemone.
"That's what I think too. The older fish think it won't happen like that. They say the urchins only spawn when they are living in dense numbers already, and they won't recover," said the Amphiprion, then darted over to the other side of the coral after a fleeing copepod.
"Then what's going to happen to the coral?" called the general after it. "How will the coral live?"
What happened to the coral was that it vanished. Over the next ten years, the algae became a blanket enfolding the entire coast, strangling out the sun, and, as coral after coral ejected its polyps, turned white, and died, colonizing the territory left behind. Any coral polyps that took temporary root on a bare patch of ground were swiftly outgrown. The anemones took drastic losses of two thirds of their number, and were constantly struggling to produce more troops amidst the demands of eating in the dense forest that stifled the food-bearing waves.
One day, early in 2003, the youngest clones from the front passed reports of a strategic advantage initiated by a man wearing a rubber boot stepping on the rock as he pushed out his black canoe, crushing several clones of the opposing side. Total victory might be possible, and there were hopes to bring the war to a swift and satisfying conclusion.
"We must act now, sir, and fill the gap," said a clone. "We can't let them regroup their forces."
"Then," muttered the ancient general, "let us at onceŠbeginŠ beginŠ"
"Yes sir? Begin?"
"Let us begin drafting the terms of surrender."
"Surrender, sir?" asked a puzzled clone. "We can't very well expect them to surrender. This is our opportunity to flank them on the upper edge of the boulder. The desiccation will take its toll on our troops, but we stand a good chance of surrounding them utterly with ten years."
"And after that, conquest," said another.
"Conquest," mused the old anemone. "Conquest..."
"That's right, sir. Conquest at last."
"What you've always dreamed about, sir." Now they were all encouraging him. But the anemone was thinking back to a bright tropical beach a hundred years ago, before the black canoes, before the Diadema plague, when it first split longitudinally and made an identical copy of itself.
"Maybe that was where I went wrong," it said. "Which one of you was it? Was it you? Or how about you?"
The clones nearby exchanged glances. "It was the clones at the front line, sir," said one uncertainly. "We didn't see it ourselves, but we hear enemy mortality was high. The time to strike is now, sir."
"Of course, of course," said the old anemone.