These fish gardeners enjoy their harvests, however, pulling up and ingesting the red algae with such gusto that some marine turf is still attached.
"The (damselfish) stomach is filled with the algae," Hata said, "but we think... animals harbored by the turf are also important food resources."
Like family members competing for garden space, the fishes compete for land that's suitable for their algae plots. Some damselfishes grow a mixture of algae crops. "Others maintain small monocultures with higher yield per unit area," added Hata.
The damselfish/algae relationship, "cultivation mutualism," is not usually seen in marine habitats.
Gavin Maneveldt and Derek Keats, botanists at the University of the Western Cape, previously determined that a certain species of limpet, Patella cochlear, gardens algae along the South and southern West coasts of South Africa.
In this case, the fish's grazing functions as a lawnmower would keep the growth of a certain kind of fleshy algae under control. Limpets, however, don't have as close of an evolved relationship with their algae, since damselfish do more crop maintenance.