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Everything but an eye-biter

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"Their mouths are round like an "O." They swim up to other fishes and suck their eyes out. Pop! Just like that."


I winced. It sounded too horrible to contemplate. David Chitambo clearly relished the effect of his story, because his next one was about snout-sucking egg thieves.


We were sitting on the beach of the little fishing village at Cape Maclear in Malawi, watching the sun funneling liquid gold into the afternoon sky above Mumbo Island. David is a fisher, and we were discussing cichlids, those colorful little fish for which Lake Malawi is famous.


There was reason to remember David's story the next day while snorkeling off Domwe Island. I was tail up among a school of purplish cichlids who were nibbling algae off some rocks. A rather gaudy fish with a succulent pair of lips swam up to me and opened its mouth, displaying two rows of very businesslike teeth. It seemed to size up the single eye of my goggles, then flicked away into the gray.


Back home, fascinated by eye-biters, I began fossicking around in some scientific studies on cichlids. None mentioned the ocular specialists. So I called Tony Ribbink, the cichlid guru at the Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity in Grahams-town, South Africa.


His reply was brief: "It's an error and a myth. No fish pluck eyes from living fish as a feeding strategy."


By then, though, I was hooked on cichlids. Never mind the eye-biter story: The whole existence of this extraordinary family seemed to be a catalogue of errors, some awful, the rest a testimony to the wonder of serendipitous errors. I guess that statement requires an explanation.


Life has been around on Earth for about 3 billion years, during which trillions of trillions of creatures have lived, some reproducing and dying every few days. That amounts to a big heap of trial and error.


We humans


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